When director Frank Galati premiered "The Visit," a new musical by
Anybody who saw that production won't quickly forget the butler, Rudi, played by James Harms.
In fact, Harms kept playing this role, even after the musical left Chicago. I saw him again in Arlington, Va., in 2008, when "The Visit" played the Signature Theatre, a whopping seven years after its premiere. Last fall, he finally made it to Broadway with Rivera and "The Visit," albeit as a one-night-only benefit for The Actors Fund. When you thought about it, it was impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role. Harms is, to say the least, a distinctive actor.
Harms, who grew up in Clifton in east-central Illinois and went to college at
But if Rudi in "The Visit" was Harms' best work up until that point, it was eclipsed this past spring by his performance in Robert Falls' production of
Jimmy Tomorrow kept popping into my head last weekend when I watched Harms star as Don Quixote in the very intriguing (and uncharacteristically intense) Light Opera Works production of "Man of La Mancha," directed by his longtime partner Rudy Hogenmiller. Harms is not a natural Don Quixote/Cervantes, a doubled character that is the typical province more of the barrel-chested leading men of a certain age, those who like to belt out the anthem "The Impossible Dream" to the back of the balcony and prove that age hath withered neither their ability at swordplay nor their vocal chops, nor — in some cases — their ability to charm the young women of the chorus.
Harms took a very different approach, one that focused on mortality and vulnerability. "Man of La Mancha," which anyone in my job gets to review at least a couple of times a year, is about holding off despair, really, and hanging on to idealism even in the most difficult circumstances. Given that no ready alternative is available to us in such moments, it comes with useful life lessons. About halfway through the show in Evanston on Saturday night, I had one of those epiphanies where I realized that the reason this often seems like a cold and disjointed show is that so many of the lead actors I've seen in this particular role need no one as much as themselves.