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Man of La Mancha
Written by Dale Wasserman; music by Mitch Leigh; lyrics by Joe Darion
London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, WC2 until June 8
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
To describe Man of La Mancha as clunky is akin to describing the Himalayas as hilly. There’s some reason it is beloved in the US and has been revived on Broadway four times since its debut in 1965 but I’m damned if I can understand why. The movie version with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren(!) was a car crash.
It has two and a half great songs. The title song, known to anyone who has ever ridden a hotel elevator and ‘The Impossible Dream’ which every musical theatre baritone sticks in their first solo album and the charming ’Dulcinea'.
Mitch Leigh, steeped in the world of ad jingles, certainly knew how to craft an earworm tune and Darion, amazingly, took on the lyrics after W H Auden was fired.
Wasserman’s book, based on a TV play he did in 1959, has an irritating framing device of dubious historical accuracy. The great writer Cervantes (Kelsey Grammer) is imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition and while he waits his fellow captives put him to a mock trial for which he acts out scenes from his unfinished novel Don Quixote, which he has just saved from the flames. It’s an almost Brechtian distancing effect which further clouds the picture and makes us less engaged. This is fatal for a sentimental piece which wears its emotions on its sleeve.
The big staging of musicals at the Coliseum each summer has been a welcome annual event by the impresarios Michael Grade and Michael Linnit. Their laudable aim is to celebrate lesser known works and exploit this huge venue by hiring a full orchestra in place of the usual pit band. For musical theatre aficionados it is heaven to hear scores performed at such scale. Where these ventures have gone awry somewhat is that the runs are shorts and the costs huge so Movie Stars are called for and for the most part these luminaries haven’t got the singing chops. Sadly, one has to admit that Grammar follows in the footsteps of the thin voiced Close and Thompson. In the end it negates the whole point of making this about the music.
There is no arguing with Grammer's undoubted stage presence and it is wonderful to hear Frasier's pristine diction again, it all enhances the melancholy nobility of this old knight, but his singing voice just doesn’t have the power or the shading necessary to make these songs work in this huge space. The emotion has to be in the singing, for it’s not in the book, and by the end of his numbers we’re relieved he’s got to the far shore, rather than being delighted at having been transported.
He’s not helped by Lonny Price’s turgid staging. It looks like am-dram in a church hall that suddenly found itself moved to a cathedral. Lots of superfluous milling around by an underemployed cast. James Noone's set is unremittingly ugly and one wonders why a piece that is all about imagination requires such literalism. The stage is dominated by a huge levered metal staircase that descends ominously (you know one night it’s is going to get stuck) and the action is then confined to a central platform.
The other casting coup is opera star Danielle De Niese whose glorious voice elevates the whole thing (somebody needs to cast her in Carousel). In an utterly thankless role she gives good wench but spends the whole time literally fighting off thuggish men. Price’s elongated staging of her being gang raped is particularly nauseating and unnecessary in what is essentially a piece of fluff. Nicholas Lyndhurst deftly brings comedy, where there is none, to the part of The Innkeeper and Peter Polycarpou is as reliably mischievous as ever as the Don’s sidekick, Sancho Panza.
The cast is huge, the stage is huge, the tunes are huge but the material is oh dear.