The Theatreguide.London Review
Coliseum Spring 2019
With the main theatres today
increasingly desperate for new musicals while opting instead to dress up
anaemic classics/movie tie-ins with youthful glitter/hi-viz screen stars,
Man of La Mancha at the ENO is one show that wears its heart on its
sleeve, warts and all, and is all the more appealing for it.
With the slightest of nods to
historical fact, this is the 1965 New York hit musical where writer Dale
Wasserman drops Don Quixote into a story within a story.
Kelsey Grammer endearingly
portrays the iconic knight’s creator, 15th-century writer Miguel de
Cervantes (Shakespeare’s contemporary), who finds himself in a dank jail
awaiting interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition.
Faced with the sight of the
only copy of his manuscript dangled over a fiery brazier, he submits to a
mock trial at the hands of his fellow inmates, led by Nicholas Lyndhurst,
all gimlet-eyed as the sardonic Governor.
Thinking on his feet,
Cervantes says he’ll account for himself by recreating the world of Alonso
Quijana, his novel's protagonist who descends into madness and reinvents
himself as the ever-questing Don Quixote.
Costumes are plucked out of
nowhere as the whole jail finds itself multi-roling this classic study of
mental illness. Along the way we encounter Don Quixote's trusty squire
Sancho Panza – a finely tuned Peter Polycarpou – and, of course, the
object of his affections Dulcinea, who's really the serving girl and
It’s a solid cast who work
confidently with the different narrative and music levels, taking their
cue from a confident Grammer who proves quite the trouper in this almost
They conspire to tell a great
story and that’s why this is worth the ticket. Because as musicals go,
this was never an amazing example – its songs lack spectrum, reflecting
the more 'direct' style that evolved in the 1960s.
But Grammer and Lyndhurst
acquit themselves well vocally while playing to their acting strengths as
they slip in and out of their various characters. As the long-suffering
Sancho Panza, Polycarpou takes a woefully underwritten part and deftly
makes it his own.
As Aldonza Danielle de Niese
brings an attractive balance of fire and intelligence to the musical's one
convincingly complex character but rarely gets the chance to shine
songwise until the clump of numbers towards the end of Act II – peaking
with the soaring Aldonza.
The opera provenance is
evident and a bit of a curate’s egg. The dark hoodies and medieval russet
blue and red linens form a monolithic counterpoint to the black/grey
single set, while movement comes in solid blocks that go up/down or
left/right (though there’s Carmen-like flash in the Gypsy Dance).
Mitch Leigh’s score here
arrives as more Britten than Iberian — all French horns and not enough
trumpets — and similarly his and lyricist Joe Darion’s songs have little
space to sparkle. The Impossible Dream almost slips you by, to be honest.
Director Lonny Price finds
unexpected ways to find sparks in the mix, such as using spots to stir
static song renditions or unexpected bouts of acrobatics and props
Hang around for the second
half where the budget is hurled at a string of big set pieces – some turn
very dark indeed, even unsettling, such as the Knight of the Mirrors
sending shafts of light into the audience from fragments that reflect Don
Quixote’s shattered psyche.
The producer's decision to go with the strength of story and setting, rather than glitz it up superficially, carries the show fittingly as a romp of a drama with something for everyone.
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