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.
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.
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.