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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Man Of La Mancha
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 prostitute Aldonza.

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 30-strong ensemble.

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 improbably caught.

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.

Nick Awde

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Review of  Man Of La Mancha - Coliseum Theatre 2019