Review – Man of La Mancha ****

Man of La Mancha hasn’t been produced in London’s West End since 1968. I must confess that, ahead of seeing this new production staring Kelsey Grammer, I was worried I was going to find out why!

Based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote and writer Dale Wasserman’s own television play of the novel, the musical version frames the stories of Don Quixote (the man of La Mancha in the title) by having us first encounter the author Cervantes (Kelsey Gammer) and his servant (Peter Polycarpou) as they are thrown into prison in what is apparently a totalitarian state where the inmates only ever leave to face execution. Cervantes finds himself on trial by the other inmates with all his possessions at stake if they find him guilty. He decides to plead his case by putting on a play, casting himself as elderly author Alonso Quijano who has written much on chivalry. So much, in fact, that he loses his grip on reality, believing himself to be a chivalrous knight called Don Quixote.

So within five minutes of the opening we’ve got Kelsey Grammer playing Cervantes playing Alonso Quijano playing Don Quixote! But I think my description makes it seem harder to follow than it is. In fact the whole edifice hangs together rather well and we move easily from the prison to the play within a play which is where (and when – Cervantes ‘play’ is set in the sixteenth century even though his prison is decidedly futuristic – do keep up)  most of the action takes place.

The framing device does two things. It allows Cervantes to comment on Don Quixote’s and Quijano’s journeys. And because the frame is set in the near future it also provides a degree of currency to the discussion on truth, facts and fantasy which are at the core of the story.

In Cervantes’ play within a play his Don Quixote sees things as he wants them to be, not as they are. So a windmill is a giant with whirling arms, an inn is a castle and a prostitute is Dulcinea, the love of his life. In playing this multi-layered role Kelsey Grammer has a huge task. On top of playing the three interlinked characters he also has to shake off images of Frasier and muster enough singing chops to be convincing in the vastness of the Coliseum. In terms character delineation and stage presence he’s a great success. With Frasier appearing daily on Channel 4 comparisons are inevitable. But only those Frasier tropes which fit the part of allowed in. So Don Quixote’s delusions of grandeur are a good fit, as is his use of floral language (on more than one occasion things are described as a ‘boon’ –  a favourite Frasier descriptor). As for the singing this is always at least fine throughout and often very good indeed – notably in the stand-out ‘Impossible Dream’.

Co-starring we have Danielle de Niece who is a captivating presence as the prostitute at the inn Aldonza (but who Don Quixote sees as Dulcinea). Nicholas Lyndhurst works hard as both the hard faced prisoner running Cervantes impromptu ‘trial’ and the dipsomaniac innkeeper at Don Quixote’s ‘castle’. He is a delight in the scene where he has to knight Don Quixote. Peter Polycarpou is Cervantes’ servant and Sancho Panza – keeping both of them grounded in simple adoration of the man, which provides him with the funny and touching solo ‘I really like him’.

The show overall has an epic feel to it. The set is huge as is the sweep of the story. But its unique qualities may also be what has seen it resisted in London for so long. The distance between the futuristic prison and the 16th century story can be alienating at times. The play within a play device is perhaps over stretched. And the story takes a dark turn in Act 2. Having Aldonza brutally attacked is one thing, but setting it as a dance number sits uneasily. It stays sombre, if ultimately uplifting, to the end – reminiscent in tone of Carousel.

This was, for me, a revelation. A musical unlike any other I’ve seen and which exceeded my expectations across the board. And, of course, we’ve got to keep Kelsey Grammer coming back to London (this is his second visit, having been brilliant in Big Fish at the end of 2017). More please!

Man of La Mancha is at the London Coliseum until 8 June 2019.

She in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office


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