Review - Man of La Mancha starring Kelsey Grammer at the London Coliseum
With its earworm of a song in “The Impossible Dream”, the 1965 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha lives in the shadow of its declaration: "To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go."
ENO and their annual commercial musical partners Michael Linnit and Michael Grade (who previously partnered on productions of Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard, Carousel and Chess here) now run where the brave have not dared since it originally transferred to the West End from Broadway in 1968, and that is to revive the show in London. (It has, by contrast, had four separate Broadway revivals in that time). And seeing it here in all its leaden but desperately affirmative glory is to know why it has an enduring sentimental appeal to American audiences, but may not resonate quite so forcefully over here.
As with The Fantasticks, premiered off-Broadway just five years earlier (and also owing a lot of its success to a single song, “Try to Remember”), it's a musical about play-acting, personal morality and (weirdly in the coincidence stakes) rape. Framed as a trial being held by prisoners held captive in an underground prison during the Spanish Inquisition, the show is equally a trial to watch, as it endlessly indulges the dreams and delusions of one prisoner, Miguel de Cervantes (the author of the original Don Quixote) who styles himself as his title character and acts out his story with his trusty sidekick Sancho Panza, embarking on a series of adventures that free him from confinement, in his mind at least. (Last year, the RSC also staged a straight version of this story around the corner at the Garrick).
As played by this show's star attraction Kelsey Grammer, it marks his third consecutive dreamer of a character who surrenders to fantasy, after Broadway's Finding Neverland and his last London appearance in Big Fish at the Other Palace. He has a tendency to chew the scenery around him with his air of glinting bombast. There's an equally unfettered performance from opera singer Danielle de Niese as the prostitute Aldonza whom he co-opts as Dulcinea in his play world, but at least she's capable of singing up a mellifluous storm in a way that Grammar merely skims the surface of.
A large ensemble cast surrounds them, but the biggest star is David White commanding a large (and loud) orchestra. Lonny Price's panoramic, well-populated production has detail (and gorgeous costumes from Fotini Dimou), though James Noone's ugly set doesn't help atmospherically. A lumbering show has its moments of familiarity as “The Impossible Dream” pops up again (and again), but mostly the dream that's impossible is to make it feel alive and relevant today.
Man of La Mancha tickets are available now.