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Man of La Mancha

Dale Wasserman
Michael Linnit and Michael Grade
London Coliseum
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The latest musical in what is becoming an annual event at the English National Opera’s London Coliseum has primarily been built around its TV stars.

Director Lonny Price is graced with a cast of varied talents led by Frasier and Rodney from Only Fools and Horses.

Rather than a Sondheim or a Lloyd Webber, this time around producers have revived this legendary but rarely performed musical take on Don Quixote.

Few Londoners will ever have seen the show on stage, since its last West End performance was in 1968. However, many may have fallen in love with the silver screen version featuring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren.

Designer James Noone has created a gigantic, grey Spanish prison of indeterminate period with a set of hydraulic stairs that practically ascends to heaven for an unusual work that operates in three dimensions.

This is the new home of Kelsey Grammer’s character Miguel de Cervantes. He shares it with a servant played by Peter Polycarpou and a large group of highly threatening colleagues. As in The Arabian Nights, the noble playwright / poet quickly realises that his only hope of survival is to spin his threatening new friends a yarn.

This tells the story of a delusional old man, Alonso Quijana (Grammer again). In a state close to madness, he creates the third dimension by reinventing himself as Don Quixote de La Mancha, a knight errant. Despite the efforts of family members, he embarks on a series of adventures with his devoted servant Sancho Panza (Polycarpou again), tilting at rather disappointing when well, before embarking on a quest to please and defend the honour of the lady Dulcinea.

She might be a slatternly scullery maid but the character played by opera diva Danielle de Niese (sharing the role of Cassidy Jansen due to opera commitments) achieves a kind of nobility and, with her fine soprano, also brings a touch of musical class to the production.

Lyndhurst takes dual roles, the main one being that of a drunken innkeeper, who could easily be mistaken for Del Boy’s nervous, self-effacing brother as, much of the frustration of his constantly nagging wife, he is required to house and ennoble the Knight.

Coincidentally, this revival comes to London only a few months after the RSC’s adaptation of Don Quixote. Where that highly enjoyable version by Mike Poulton managed to balance the serious and comic aspects of the novel expertly, this musical is much lighter, although Grammer with his great stage presence and gravitas does manage to make one care about a character who could easily be seen as little more than absurd.

Musically, the Spanish-influenced evening is a mixed blessing. The ever-present Kelsey Grammer is hardly the greatest singer although he acquits himself adequately, leaving the high points to the delectable voice of Miss de Niese and experienced musical star Polycarpou, plus a strong supporting cast.

The signature song is that timeless classic “The Impossible Dream” which does far better in the company reprise than when originally sung by Don Quixote, while other highlights include the particularly tuneful “I’m Only Thinking of Him” and “Little Bird, Little Bird”.

Man of La Mancha is an enjoyable 2½-hour romp that will primarily appeal to fans of the two TV stars, although musical completists will also enjoy the opportunity to see a show with a big reputation for the first time in over half a century.

Philip Fisher