Despite numerous Broadway revivals, and a slew of Tony Awards under its belt, Man of La Mancha hasn’t been seen in the West End for over half a century. Based on Dale Wesserman’s tele-play I, Don Quixote, which is of course itself based on Cervantes novel, lyrics and music were added by Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh to create the musical version which now returns to the West End at The London Coliseum.
The writer has previously claimed that this isn’t a musical version of Don Quixote, though it would be difficult for anyone to find another way to describe it. Here, the story of Don Quixote is told, and actually performed as part of another story. Failed author, Miguel de Cervantes, and his servant are thrown in to an underground prison waiting to face the Spanish Inquisition.
The other prisoners turn on the newcomers, attempting to steal all their belongings, and threaten to burn Cervantes manuscript as punishment for his confessed crimes. The ‘Governor’ agrees to allow Cervantes to defend himself in the trial by performing the play, with the prisoners all taking on supporting roles.
The prisoners themselves are merely fodder for the metatheatrical production, there’s no attempt to develop them as characters or to explore their story. Director Lonny Price’s decision to set the prison in apparently modern day surroundings means the audience inevitably draws comparisons to contemporary events which isn’t followed through in the script, leaving the production tussling with itself to decide what it’s actually trying to say.
While the plot is desperately lacking, the production values are outstanding. James Noone’s set design sees the oppressive, and frankly terrifying prison, with its ominous descending staircase, take on varying degrees of light and shade as Cervantes mounts his own production. The scene with The Knight of The Mirrors looks incredible, as the Coliseum is bathed in a mirrorball effect.
Man of La Mancha is also blessed by some world class performances. Kelsey Grammer takes on the lead role of Cervantes/Alonso/Quixote, delivering a masterclass in theatre. There are those who may argue that he’s not quite right for the role, or that his vocal range cannot compete with that of co-star Danielle de Niese. They may have a point, but this production already asks us to accept the implausible, and stretch our imaginations to the point where it is Grammer’s confident delivery which deflects from the weaker elements of plot.
Peter Polycarpou, as the servant Sancho Panza, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, while Nicholas Lyndhurst transitions beautifully between the imposing ‘Governor’ and the permanently inebriated innkeeper; the sight of him in a night-shirt dubbing Quixote as Knight of the Woeful Countenance is a delightful moment of levity in a heavy act two.
Featuring one of the most famous songs in musical theatre history, ‘The Impossible Dream’, Man of La Mancha struggles to find its place in the modern world, and should perhaps accept that it is a musical version of Don Quixote after all, because it is the score which elevates the whole piece. Accompanied by the ENO Orchestra, it looks and sounds like a soaring epic befitting the grandeur of the London Coliseum.
With it’s lumbering plot, it could be another fifty years before Man of La Mancha makes it back to the West End, in the meantime it’s worth seeing for the staging and those performances from its four leads who succeed, where the plot fails, in captivating the audience.