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Review of Man of La Mancha at The London Coliseum

Kelsey Grammer, Cassidy Janson in Man of La Mancha by Manuel Harlan.
Kelsey Grammer, Cassidy Janson in Man of La Mancha – Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the word ‘quixotic’ (derived from that most legendary man from La Mancha) two almost opposing definitions. The Don Quixote persona who is a figment of Alonso Quijana’s imagination can be lauded as ‘extremely idealistic’ or condemned as ‘unrealistic and impractical’. So too, can director Lonny Price’s and producers Michael Linnit and Michael Grade’s revival of the 1965 multi-Tony-Award-winning musical The Man of La Mancha which is making its first London appearance in over 50 years at The Coliseum until 8th June.

The central charm of Dale Wasserman’s story is that we can choose to ridicule a deluded fool who thinks a rag is a noble lady’s token or we can be saved by choosing to see beauty and virtue where others don’t. Casting world-class comic actor, Kelsey Grammer (who is, of course, world-famous for playing the same character for 20 years) poses a similar dilemma. You would have to go on a quest of comparable duration to the one Cervantes created to find a man with better comic timing than Grammer. As the lead actor, Grammer gives us everything and more that you expect from such a giant. He is loveable, pathos-inspiring, charming and watchable for every second of this two-and-a-half hour production. Whilst he can carry a tune and embody a musical moment, Kelsey Grammer is not a singer. With the mantle of the English National Opera hanging over his performance, one feels a sort of Cervantes-esque dissonance. The storied setting of the London Coliseum and the ENO brand set up expectations of the highest plane of musicality – especially when Grammer stares at us from legions of ENO-badged posters as we make our way around the capital’s Underground stations. If one understands from the get-go that ENO Chief Executive Stuart Murphy is tasked with drawing on his considerable skill of mixing aspiration and access to bring newcomers to the London Coliseum, the casting makes perfect sense. Few viewers condemned Rex Harrison’s absence of vocal virtuosity in My Fair Lady and – with the benefit of full and frank disclosure – you should also forgive Kelsey Grammer’s singing so that you can savour his acting. Judging by the reaction of the audience, adopting the ‘extremely idealistic’ definition of this quixotic casting is consistent with the joy in their faces.

Of course, staging a musical in an opera house with a non-singer in the lead, raises the stakes for the rest of the cast. Musical theatre star, Cassidy Janson, shares the role of Dulcinea with internationally-acclaimed opera singer, Danielle de Niese – with Janson leading the bulk of performances for the latter part of the run. Once again, there is a dilemma of positioning: is this a musical that happens to be in a 2,300-seat opera house or should this production resonate with more operatic features and production values because of its host and setting? Not only does this show benefit from the grand environs of opera but it draws on the ENO’s wardrobe and scenic talent plus its orchestra of 44 world-class musicians led by conductor David White. The producers have not merely rented the venue.

For some reason, Londoner Janson plays low-born scullery maid/prostitute Aldonza (who the ‘knight-errant’ sees as the gracious and noble ‘Dulcinea’) with a Scottish lilt of no particular social class. Several of her acting moments are strong and take us to the epicentre of the philosophical delights of the Quixote illusion. Sadly, however, her singing voice doesn’t fulfil the mammoth task of countering Kelsey Grammer’s William-Shatneresque musical turns (some of which I suspect may have been nerves given the scale of the job as much as the role). Some of this production’s directorial choices don’t give Janson much of a fair shake either. Aldonza/Dulcinea appears almost exclusively surrounded by men. Lonny Price uses the first few encounters to convey Aldonza’s pluck and grit as she rises to the ‘banter’ but then returns her brutalised when the chorus of muleteers ultimately reveal themselves as rapists. Show-stopping number ‘Little Bird, Little Bird’ becomes tainted with this gratuitous and rapey interpretation that feels at odds with such an otherwise good-natured production.

Peter Polycarpou, Nick Lyndhurst, Kelsey Grammer, Cassidy Janson - Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Peter Polycarpou, Nick Lyndhurst, Kelsey Grammer, Cassidy Janson – Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The play-within-the play aspect of Man of La Mancha is established with chilling, dystopian cues. James Noone uses a full-scale metal staircase descending into the ‘hell’ of the oppressive state-led inquisition to make a not-entirely-subtle point about the modern relevance of both Cervantes and Wasserman’s stories of the noble individual in an ignoble society. But nothing about the scale or ambition of this show is subtle, making the spectacle he generates pleasing and effective. Fontini Dimou’s costumes are stunning – with wonderful texture and detail that belongs on a glorious stage. She, together with lighting designer Rick Fisher, creates a tableau of the muleteers that looks as if Velasquez himself painted it. Such moments remind us we are, in fact, in a great opera house – as does the strength of the chorus and supporting roles from Peter Polycarpou as Sancho Panza, Minal Patel (Pasha/Padre) and Julie Jupp (Rene/Housekeeper).

Of course, Kelsey Grammer is not the only legendary comic actor on the stage. Nicholas Lyndhurst as The Governor/Innkeeper also delivers handsomely thanks to his own genius for timing and impersonation.

Bolstering Kelsey Grammer’s singing does require a feat of musical engineering and I wish the combined talents of the ENO and guests had found a better way to buttress and cantilever him rather than requiring sole suspension from Cassidy Janson. The second-act Gypsy dance piece from choreographer Rebecca Howell was a delight and I would have liked to have seen more of her handiwork throughout the production. Taking the power of dance and giving the operatic ensemble’s skills more opportunity to shine would have offered plenty of musical delight around such wonderful comic turns. I would not have been shy throwing everything at ‘hedging’ the lead’s status as a non-singer, especially in this esteemed opera and ballet venue.

This show is not for the purist. It can’t quite make up its mind if it should be more opera or more musical and puts the leading lady in a tricky spot for it. Some of its directorial choices are contradictory and superfluous but overall Man of La Mancha is really good fun. From chatting to fellow theatregoers at the interval, this show offers you the choice to see it as noble and magical rather than oddly cast and assembled. They were much entertained for seeing the giants and not the windmills. I hope you too can find the best type of quixotism and enjoy this slightly disjointed romp of a musical before it closes.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

The producers who brought you the smash hit productions of Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard, Carousel and Chess present the Tony-award winning musical Man of La Mancha, at the London Coliseum this spring. Featuring the legendary song, The Impossible Dream (The Quest), Man of La Mancha is inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece novel Don Quixote. This uplifting, timeless tale stars Kelsey Grammer, Danielle de Niese, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Cassidy Janson, from 26 April for a limited 6 week season.

Join Don Quixote as he chases his impossible dream, to pursue the beautiful princess Dulcinea – and a few windmills. Determined to uphold all that is good and right at a time when the odds are stacked against him, Quixote’s courage is abounding, and we are all compelled to follow his unreachable star.

BOOKING PERIOD: 6th April to 8th June 2019
PERFORMANCE TIMES: Monday- Saturday 7.30pm, Wednesday & Saturday 2.30pm,
AGE RESTRICTION: Contains some adult themes which may not be suitable for children under 12 – No under 5s admitted in the auditorium

London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES

Man of La Mancha Review Summary

This show is not for the purist. It can’t quite make up its mind if it should be more opera or more musical and puts the leading lady in a tricky spot for it. Some of its directorial choices are contradictory and superfluous but overall Man of La Mancha is really good fun.

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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2 thoughts on “Review of Man of La Mancha at The London Coliseum”

  1. Thank you for this. The minute I saw an announcement of this production (not knowing any of the cast) I purchased tickets for myself and my husband for the final performance. I grew-up listening to the original broadway cast. My parents, who have since passed, were both university professors and theatre-people who produced this show in a number of community venues in the US. Don Quixote was a staple in our household from my earliest memories, and tilting at windmills / pushing the envelope was something my younger brother and I were taught from an early age.

    We all get to find our own path. And that is what Man of La Mancha means to me.

    I have seen the very negative reviews of this show. I have not seen the show, and it may be an *awful* production. I don’t know. The early reviews seemed to focus on the ‘out-dated’ content in terms of women’s rights, etc. I am not entirely sure what to make of that, as this is a show that portrays a portrait in time, and one that we shouldn’t forget. I would hope that women’s rights would have progressed, and I believe they have – but the underlying message still resonates with me in this day and time. To dismiss this, I believe, is to dismiss the experiences may women have faced – not just historically, but – unfortunately – women still face today.

    I also have never thought of this show as particularly driven by the ‘singing ability’ of the characters. Another reason why I appreciated your recognition that the usual ‘ENO / Coliseum’ audience may be put-off. It is not an opera, and I have never seen a production that portrayed it that way. It is about hope, and pain, and the journey – and standing by your core values, no matter what the personal cost.

    Les Miz, which is another amazing show, definitely conveys a similar message with operatic voices, and is probably one of the best musicals ever written. Man of La Mancha was intended to be much more raw, much more real. Perhaps that is what is making people uncomfortable.

    Again, thank you for your review, which – I believe – puts the show in a bit more perspective than others I have seen. I am very much looking forward to seeing this production on Saturday. Given my prior bias, I am sure I will love it, no matter what.

    For me, at least, I am very much looking forward to the production, and sharing it with my husband for the first time. Thankfully, he had time to know my parents, and there is no question that he was exposed to their love for the philosophy that underlies the book and this musical.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. I hope you do enjoy the show and please let us know what you think of it after the performance!

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