by Aliya Al-Hassan May. 1, 2019
The London Coliseum has established a run of successes with some excellent revivals of almost-forgotten musicals in recent years. It now turns to Man of La Mancha in the hope of a new box office smash. The choice is an interesting one; few people have seen or even heard of it, and it is over 50 years since it last ran in the West End. Unfortunately, it is easy to see why, with a muddy, meandering and unconvincing production.
The story follows a fictionalised version of Cervantes as he awaits trial during the Spanish Inquisition. When threatened with the destruction of his manuscript, Cervantes begins a play-within-a-play and transforms himself into Don Quixote, re-enacting his tale in order to defend himself.
The result is a confusing journey of reality into fantasy. Quixote’s noble quest is to be a hero and fight for the power of good, winning the heart of a good woman along the way.
This is a huge production for the ENO and the London Coliseum. Everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown at the casting of this new production, bringing in the big names and Hollywood glitz of Kelsey Grammer, operatic chic of Danielle De Niese, and domestic favourites Nicholas Lyndhurst and Peter Polycarpou.
As Cervantes, Kelsey Grammer is full of charisma to manage the bewildering twists and turns of the plot. Those who have followed his career will know that he can hold a tune and “The Impossible Dream” is well performed, although there are signs of strain as he goes for the top notes.
Soprano Danielle De Niese is the standout performer as a fierce Aldonza (sharing the role with Cassidy Janson). Her strengths lie in not only her superb vocal talent, but also her fine acting capabilities. Her Spanish accent is questionable, but she sings “Aldonza” with aggression and her reprise of “Dulcinea” near the end of the show is perfectly pitched.
The excellent ENO orchestra is led by David White. His conducting is lively, dynamic and makes the most of the Spanish influences in the score, with an emphasis on the castanets and guitars. In an unmemorable list of songs, “The Impossible Dream” is the obvious highlight, but even this is relied on too heavily, with two further reprisals after the first rendition.
This 1965 comic-tragedy musical won five Tony awards and is ambitiously billed as a moving illustration of nobility, chivalry, courage and idealism on a par with My Fair Lady and West Side Story, according to the programme notes of producers Michael Linnit and Michael Grade. The reality is very different.
There are some intrinsic problems with the staging of this show. The comedy is uneven and the meandering nature of the show is frequently simply confusing. The fight scenes are stilted, and the scene where Aldonza is beaten and sexually abused for following Quixote is overly long and seems gratuitous.
James Noone‘s set is a detailed modern dungeon compete with burning oil cans and graffiti on the walls. It’s a pity that it is left to the lighting and background projections to change the setting, meaning that there is sometimes a lack of whimsy and pace to the production.
There is no doubt that the big names involved here will draw in the audience, but it’s likely they will leave underwhelmed at best.
Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan