We’re now in year five of the annual GradeLinnit semi-staged musical spectacular at the London Coliseum. It has been a fascinating opportunity to see great musicals rarely revived, whether because they’re too difficult to stage, such as Chess, or too expensive, such as Sunset Boulevard.
The choice of musical this year, just like the Spanish Inquisition during which it’s set, is unexpected. Few in the UK have ever seen Man of La Mancha, except those who can remember back to its one West End outing in 1968.
Yet there’s no real reason for its rarity. 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. The tunes are strong, Joe Darion’s lyrics memorable, and it boasts that absolutely blow-away song The Impossible Dream.
So, despite the starry casting of this really patchy production – it is odd watching Kelsey Grammer and Nicholas Lyndhurst side by side, two sitcom legends from opposite sides of the Atlantic – what sustains most interest is simply the curiosity factor. Just seeing it.
Wasserman insisted this was never meant to be Don Quixote the Musical, nor is it a remotely fact-based rendering of Cervantes’ life (the Spanish Inquisition actually never went near him). But the novel’s point is pretty much intact: that it’s impossible to tell who’s more mad, society or the individual.
In a vaguely totalitarian, industrial dungeon of crumbled concrete and rusted steel rods, Miguel de Cervantes has been locked up with a load of prisoners. He tries to prove himself in a mock-trial by acting out the story of Don Quixote.
It’s all very silly, as Cervantes does himself up with quiffed hair and ridiculous eyebrows to become Quixote, but little of the comedy lands even with decent efforts from Peter Polycarpou as Sancho and Lyndhurst as the Innkeeper.
What director Lonny Price is trying to do at any moment is clear, but it’s just done clumsily. 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.
But, 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. His vibrato is stronger, his notes richer, though his breath control is still way off.
The real talent comes, though, from bona fide opera singer De Niese as Quixote’s love interest Dulcinea (alternating with Cassidy Janson). Her voice easily fills a huge space like this, and she’s also an incredibly expressive actor.
Long may Grade and Linnit continue to stage these expensive oddities – after all they’re the only chance we’ll ever get to see them. Long, though, may they also improve.