I remember reading about Man of La Mancha when I was a teenager. It sounded very grand and I made my mind up that I must see it at some time when I was grown up. How has it taken all these years for me to see it?! The answer, obviously, is that this is its first professional production in the UK since the original London show at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1968. So, when I saw that Michael Grade and the ENO were bringing it to the Coliseum, I knew I had no choice but to book. All I knew about the show was that it was based on Don Quixote (which I’ve never read); there was a film starring Peter O’Toole (which I’ve never seen); and that, for many years after it closed on Broadway, it boasted the fourth longest run of any Broadway show (after Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly and My Fair Lady) with a fantastic 2,328 performances. One can only imagine how that original production must have captured the imagination of the 1960s New York audience. Today, it’s Broadway’s 29th longest running show, but that’s still a pretty good achievement.
This was only my fifth visit to the London Coliseum, and each production I’ve seen there has sparked a little controversy. In 1975 the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see their production of La Bohème – my first exposure to live opera. The critics said it was boring. Then, in 1987, I took the young Mrs C (Miss Duncansby as she was) to see the ENO’s Carmen, starring Sally Burgess, which purists hated because of the updating. Fast forward to 2007, for their Kismet, one of my favourite musicals but a disaster of a production for numerous reasons. Even last year, their (in my view) outstanding Chess attracted huge criticism for the staging and the performances. And now, the much-awaited Man of La Mancha has opened to a swathe of two-star reviews almost across the board. Are they doing something wrong, do you think?
Cervantes and his faithful manservant have been sent to prison awaiting the displeasure of the Spanish Inquisition. The other prisoners threaten to burn his manuscript so, to distract them, and to ask for their leniency, Cervantes asks them to play along with a charade – acting out the story of Don Quixote, and some of his adventures. Whilst he takes the role of Don Quixote, his manservant becomes Sancho Panza, “the Governor” – who’s the most dominant and senior of the group of prisoners – becomes the drunken innkeeper, another prisoner “the Duke” becomes Dr Carrasco, and soon all the inmates are playing a role in telling the story. Thus you get two concurrent plots; Cervantes surviving in prison, and will he be released, and the re-enactment of some of Don Quixote’s tales.
Just to get the record straight, I’ll say this here and now – I regret not discovering this totally magnificent score many years ago. Crossing some classic showtunes with a Spanish, flamenco vibe, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion created an absolute musical masterpiece. What particularly impressed me about it was the way it incorporates both major and minor keys within the same piece of music. Take, for instance, the opening number Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote). Its glorious chorus starts in major with its proud, certain, and proclamatory “I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha, my destiny calls and I go” to be followed instantly by the minor, more uncertain, “and the wild winds of fortune will carry me onward oh, whithersoever they blow”. Similar instances can be found throughout the score, and I, for one, am truly delighting in getting properly acquainted with it. If you haven’t heard it before, please find the original London cast recording on YouTube, starring Keith Michell and Joan Diener. It is sensational. And that’s not to take anything away from the new Coliseum cast either, because I think they’re pretty sensational too! And the orchestra under the baton of David White – good grief! Among the finest performances of a musical score I’ve ever heard. My toes curled with pleasure and I couldn’t take the smile off my face throughout the whole show.
In addition to the score, I found Don Quixote’s adherence to the goals of courage, honour and nobility incredibly moving in these sad current times, where lying, cheating and ignominy seem to be celebrated and rewarded. We all accept that Don Quixote is a deluded soul but, boy, is his heart in the right place! In a bitter, selfish, criminal world, who wouldn’t prefer to maintain that hopeful air of grace? And it’s that heart-stirring emotion that carries us through the entire show, so that you come out of the theatre feeling like a better person than the one who went in. And that is the absolute magic of musical theatre. So, having said that, why has it disappointed so many critics?
Mrs C was much less forgiving about the staging and the whole production than me. I thought it was fine. James Noone has created a dark and comfortless prison environment created from a bombed museum, where cutpurses and vagabonds lurk behind antiquities. But when Cervantes, in his role as Alonso Quijana, as his identity as Don Quixote (keep up,) magically recreates the gallant and/or ignoble moments of our hero and his adventures, the stage setting takes on a noticeable brightness and vigour. The huge, portentous staircase descends occasionally from the gods, stopping the action with its significance – that it’s the only way in or out of the prison. Other moments where you have to use your imagination to see past the stagecraft include Don Quixote and Sancho Panza bestride two horses (two actors with horse masks – very Equus) galloping their way over the plains by means of stepping on wooden crates that have been placed in front of them.
Mrs C really disliked both the staircase and the wooden crates. The staircase, she thought, simply held up the action for too long, and the crates just look amateur. In fact, and she has a point, she would have preferred to see a truly pared-down production, one on a blank stage with just the minimum of props, somewhere intimate like the Menier. And, indeed, you can just imagine how brilliant that imaginary production could be. However, and here’s the rub, you can’t really stage Man of La Mancha without a socking great staircase. And, by making it retract, so that most of the time it is hidden and unascendable, it increases the sense of isolation and powerlessness of the prisoners below. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the staircase. But those crates… well, you can’t have real horses on stage, that’s obvious. And you do have to create the illusion of movement. And the amateurishness does go hand in hand with the fact that this is a bunch of prisoners enacting the story with whatever they can lay their hands on. I believe they used a similar device in the original London production. So I’m going to be generous about the crates too.
One of the criticisms levelled against this production is that Kelsey Grammer is miscast. I think that’s total nonsense. Mr Grammer is a stage performer of enormous experience and great presence, and with a surprisingly fine voice too. Yes, he may sometimes adopt something of an uncomfortable air about him; a slight distancing, or even awkwardness as he occupies the stage. But I think that’s a perfect characterisation of Cervantes/Quixote. Cervantes is a nobleman, unexpectedly laid low by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, now required to huddle with lowlifes. Quixote sets himself as a man apart, by virtue of his honour and his purity of thought. Neither character is at ease with his surroundings, and I think that’s exactly what Mr Grammer’s performance conveys.
And yes, in this day and age, where we like to avoid giving offence if possible, and standards of what is acceptable today are very different from what was acceptable over fifty years ago, the production has kept the Abduction scene. It’s a very unpleasant watch, where the men in the inn/prison round on Aldonza in a cruel, taunting, teasing ritual designed to humiliate and terrify, which culminates in her being head-butted and rendered unconscious, in order for Pedro to rape her. There’s no other way of saying it. But musicals are not all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Although it is horrifying to witness, it would be wrong to sanitise it. This, sadly, is the reality of the lives these people lead. A major significance of this scene is that it’s highly critical of Don Quixote, who remains completely oblivious to her plight, his head still stuck up in the clouds in lofty pursuits.
However, it’s Quixote’s striving for perfection, his crusade for the ultimate decency, which is the essence of The Impossible Dream. That song, that has been covered by hundreds of artists, has suffered from having its meaning weakened through overuse and familiarity. Audition wannabes will sing it on the X-Factor, etc, as an expression of “realising your dream”. But it’s not. The clue is in the title; it’s the impossible dream. It’s Don Quixote recognising his own delusion; that he’s channelling all his efforts into something that he will never achieve. The impossible dream, the unbeatable foe, the unrightable wrong, the unreachable star; none of them can be turned into reality. But that courage to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause is something we can adopt as a personal target, and if we do, the world will be better for this.
I could go on, but I don’t want to outstay my welcome, gentle reader! In addition to Kelsey Grammer’s fantastic performance, there is a barnstorming portrayal by Danielle de Niese of Aldonza/Dulcinea, whose incredible voice soars and delights throughout the whole evening. There’s no more reliable pair of hands than those of Peter Polycarpou, who takes the role of Sancho Panza, with all its sentimentality and unsophisticated humour, and makes it believable and touching. Nicholas Lyndhurst is coolly menacing as The Governor, a colourless man who would snap your neck dead with one flick; and as the tipsy innkeeper humouring his deluded guest into thinking it’s a castle. There’s fantastic support from Eugene McCoy as the Legolas-like Duke, Minal Patel as the Padre, Emanuel Alba as the bright-as-a-button Barber, and Julie Jupp as the somewhat intimidating housekeeper. But everyone gives a fantastic performance in this truly ensemble show.
In a nutshell, Man of La Mancha touched that hard to define nerve in me that meant that I unexpectedly but unconditionally loved it. I know that’s not a good response from someone dispassionately trying to review it, but it’s the truth. Desperately now trying to sort out a date when we can go again. I think I can understand why some people might feel the production let it down – but it didn’t for me. Simply a fantastic night at the theatre.
P. S. Cast recording album please!!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan