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Man of La Mancha at London Coliseum starring Kelsey Grammer and Nicholas Lyndhurst – review round-up

Kelsey Grammer and the company of Man of La Mancha at London Coliseum. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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There have been four fruits of the partnership between the English National Opera and commercial producers GradeLinnit so far – semi-staged productions of Chess, Sunset Boulevard, Carousel and Sweeney Todd. Their fifth annual joint venture is upon us: a semi-staged production of Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh’s Man of La Mancha.

Based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha was a huge hit when it premiered on Broadway in 1965, running for more than 2,000 performances and scooping up five Tony Awards. It’s rarely seen nowadays, though, and it hasn’t been in the West End since its London premiere more than 50 years ago.

The ENO and GradeLinnit’s revival is directed by Lonny Price, stars Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer (making his West End debut) and Only Fools and Horses’ Nicholas Lyndhurst, and runs at the London Coliseum until early June.

But do these two sitcom stars successfully resurrect this long-retired musical? Have the ENO and GradeLinnit scored a critical hit with their fifth semi-staging? Or are they just dreaming an impossible dream?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Nicholas Lyndhurst, Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha
Nicholas Lyndhurst, Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha – An impossible dream

Man of La Mancha isn’t a straightforward retelling of the story of Don Quixote. Instead, it has Cervantes enact scenes from his famous novel while holed up in a prison by the Spanish Inquisition. This framing device – and, indeed, the rest of the musical – don’t go down well with the critics.

The musical is “dated” according to Stefan Kyriazis (Express, ★★), “creaky” according to Alice Saville (TimeOut, ★★), and “clunky” according to Marianka Swain (The Arts Desk, ★★).

“It’s the most peculiar show, with one great anthemic song – The Impossible Dream – and a very odd book,” writes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★). “Man of La Mancha hasn’t been performed professionally in London since 1968. It can now return to the museum.”

It is “at odds with Cervantes’ novel”, Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★) contends. “One can only speculate what might have happened if the show’s creators had persisted with WH Auden as their lyricist: probably not a Broadway smash but a musical truer to Cervantes’ purpose.”

“We could happily put up with another 51 years till we see it again,” says Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★), while Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★) thinks that “it’s not been much missed” in its absence, and Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★) concludes that “the dream that’s impossible is to make it feel alive and relevant today”.

It’s only Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★) that thinks the musical isn’t all that bad. “Dale Wasserman’s book is showing its wrinkles and half-century-old gender politics, but Mitch Leigh’s flamenco-inspired score – all castanets and classical guitars – is still sumptuous,” he argues. “The tunes are strong, Joe Darion’s lyrics memorable, and it boasts that absolutely blow-away song.”

Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha at London Coliseum. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Man of La Mancha – Tilting at windmills

Director Lonny Price has directed three of these semi-staged musical revivals before. He took the reins of Sweeney Todd in 2015, Sunset Boulevard in 2016, and Carousel in 2017. For Man of La Mancha, he’s decided to update the musical to the present day. Sort of. And the critics don’t like it.

As so often recently, productions scrabble to seem relevant, so the setting is a quasi-modern ghetto complete with searchlights, graffiti and a multi-cultural cast”, explains Kyriazis. “Yet it still refers to the Inquisition. Where are we? When are we?”

It’s a spin that “only confuses” according to Maxwell and “defies logic” according to Billington, while Andrew Dickson (Financial Times, ) finds Price’s production “creaking” and “effortful”, and Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ) reckons that “the overall mise-en-scène is several Pythons short of the full Gilliam”.

“What director Lonny Price is trying to do at any moment is clear, but it’s just done clumsily,” contends Bano. “Most of the comedy fizzles out somewhere between the stage and the stalls. Timing is off; there are long moments when nothing happens; some actors are badly lit; there’s a pointlessly long and gratuitous scene where Danielle de Niese’s Dulcinea is attacked and knocked unconscious by a group of men.”

The show’s design is similarly slated. “James Noone’s old-school set design doesn’t make a convincing arena for contemporary parallels,” writes Saville. “It’s all naffly crumbling plaster with a flight of metal steps that set the whole confection a-wobble every time they’re lowered.”

Not only that, but Price’s production also comes under fire for neglecting to tackle the musical’s uglier, outdated aspects. “The production has not made any great attempt to rethink the musical’s problems,” says Crompton. “This kind of thing just won’t wash today.”

Man of La Mancha company. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Man of La Mancha company. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Man of La Mancha – A fool’s errand

Kelsey Grammer might be most famous as the star of a US sitcom, but he’s got plenty of musical theatre pedigree in recent years. He was even nominated for a Tony for his Broadway musical debut in La Cage Aux Folles in 2010. He’s unlikely to win any awards here, though.

Most critics reckon he’s just miscast as Cervantes/Don Quixote. “Grammer has neither the haggard mien nor the sense of otherworldliness to make a plausible hero,” says Billington. “There is an irrevocable sanity about him that makes his casting seem oddly quixotic.”

“Grammer harrumphs effectively, but doesn’t hint at the wistful tragedy of a man who has cast himself in a role he can’t possibly fulfil,” chimes Dickson, while Mountford observes that “while Grammer captures well the Don’s melancholy nobility, it’s not the sort of charismatic lead performance necessary to anchor a show in a venue like the Coliseum.”

His singing is okay, but nothing special. “The tone is there, but he just doesn’t have the breath to fill a huge space like the Coliseum,” opines Crompton, while Cavendish writes that “if he doesn’t raise the roof, he doesn’t have you looking at the floor”.

“What he’s lacking,” continues Cavendish, “is the vital spark of eccentricity that would brighten the comic energy of the piece and illuminate the central conceit: about the nobility (or otherwise of our hero’s fond and foolish romanticism). It’s one thing to stand firm under a spotlight for the big number, but he displays a similar immobility elsewhere.”

Again, it’s only Bano that strikes a more positive note. “Grammer is a naturally charismatic presence as barmy idealist Quixote, and his singing voice has improved since his first musical outing in London, Big Fish at The Other Palace in 2017,” he writes. “His vibrato is stronger, his notes richer, though his breath control is still way off.”

The other legendary sitcom star on stage – Nicholas Lyndhurst – is barely mentioned in the reviews. Instead, it’s bona-fide opera singer Danielle De Niese that earns the loudest praise. As tavern girl Aldonza, she has a “sublime soprano” according to Cavendish, shows “conviction and charisma” according to Kyriazis, and brings “an energy that’s otherwise lacking from this dour production” according to Saville.

Man of La Mancha – Is it any good?

Um, no. With two-star reviews across the board, it’s fair to say the fifth semi-staged production from GradeLinnit and the ENO is something of a flop.

The musical itself is showing its aged and then some, and Price’s patchy production doesn’t solve any of its problems. Grammer doesn’t disgrace himself on his West End debut, but most critics don’t think Don Quixote is the right role for him.

Reviving Man of La Mancha in 2019? Turns out that might be an impossible dream.

Man of La Mancha: 50 years on, the last surviving lead cast member recalls an impossible dream

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