Man of La Mancha – London Coliseum

Writer: Dale Wasserman

Music: Mitch Leigh

Lyrics: Joe Darion

Director: Lonny Price

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

The lines that distinguish grand opera from musical theatre can often become blurred and the producing team of Michael Linnit and Michael Grade do little to make them clearer. Man of La Mancha, the fifth in what has become an annual series of collaborations with English National Opera, is a 1965 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical with a touch of Bizet, staged in an opera house and headlined by an American comedy actor and an Australian-born soprano. The mix is nothing if not intriguing.

The show begins with 16th/17th Century writer Miguel de Cervantes being thrown into a dungeon, pending trial by the Spanish Inquisition. His fellow inmates, murderers, thieves, etc, decide to put the newcomer on trial themselves and, in his defence, Cervantes writes a play which is performed by himself and other prisoners. Cervantes becomes the gallant knight Don Quixote who, along with his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, rides off on a quest to fight injustice, tilt at windmills and chase impossible dreams.

This play within a play narrative structure is far more intricate than is typical for Broadway musicals and there are times when the intelligence of Dale Wasserman’s book and Joe Darion’s lyrics add further complexity when simplicity is needed, Composer Mitch Leigh has an ear for catchy melodies and his Spanish flavoured score offers a lot more than just one hit song.

There are few suggestions that this production is “semi-staged”. It is fully costumed and the orchestra is consigned to the pit, leaving the cavernous stage open. James Noone’s gloomy design has one spectacular feature – a wide metal staircase that descends from above to the dungeon whenever contact with the outside world is being made.

This musical is not sung through, long spoken scenes giving it a stop-start feel and, when the show stops, much gets lost in the vast auditorium. This type of large scale production, destined for a limited run, inevitably places constraints on a director. Largely, Lonny Price sticks to a conventional approach, leaving himself little scope for adding touches of comic invention which could have livened up duller patches.

As Cervantes/Quixote, Kelsey Grammar is valiant and ridiculous in exactly the right measures, but he is not known for being a great singer and, when he launches into the show’s iconic song, The Impossible Dream, a cloud of dread blankets the audience. However, he has previous experience in musicals and he attacks the song with gusto worthy of Quixote, never striving to reach the unreachable high notes, but relying instead on forceful delivery and magnetic stage presence to sell it.

Danielle de Niese is superbly tempestuous as Aldonza, the put upon and brutally abused peasant girl who Quixote envisions to be the gracious Lady Dulcinea, and, of course, she sings with glorious clarity. Peter Polycarpou is a sprightly Sancho Panza and a doleful Nichola Lyndhurst is the self-styled “governor” of the prisoners and an innkeeper. The entire company is made up of 30 actors, singers and dancers (choreographed by Rebecca Howell) and David White conducts a 30-piece orchestra, his new orchestrations giving prominence to the brass section.

Price’s production contains several memorable highlights, but, in all, it is hit and miss. Unseen in London for half a century, Man of La Mancha has assumed legendary status here, which, on this evidence, may not be entirely merited.

Runs until 8 June 2019 | Image: 

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