Man of La Mancha review – Kelsey Grammer quixotically cast in starry misfire

Previous collaborations between commercial producers and English National Opera have given us memorable productions of Sweeney Todd and Sunset Boulevard. The luck runs out, however, with this revival of a long-neglected musical from 1965 based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The problem lies partly in the show itself and partly in the bizarre casting of Kelsey Grammer in the title role.

Dale Wasserman’s book addresses the problem of boiling down a massive novel by showing an imprisoned Cervantes staging scenes from Don Quixote to save his manuscript from the flames. By making the context a modern fascist dictatorship – you can tell it is fascist because the guards wear dark glasses indoors – Lonny Price’s production defies logic: is Cervantes a historical figure or a contemporary emblem of suffering? The one gain is that the final song of protest by the prisoners acquires faint echoes of the chorus at the end of Fidelio. The crucial difference is that we are here listening, for the third time, to The Impossible Dream.

The one consolation … Danielle de Niese as Aldonza. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

That song is both the show’s one durable hit and its ultimate curse. It is entirely out of sync with the rest of Mitch Leigh’s pseudo-Hispanic score. In the fuzzy idealism of Joe Darion’s lyrics – urging us “to fight the unbeatable foe” – it is also at odds with Cervantes’ novel. You can’t pin a single meaning on a magnificently elusive book, but it is clear at the end that Don Quixote is a tragic figure who realises his vision of chivalric heroism was a ludicrous illusion. One can only speculate what might have happened if the show’s creators had persisted with WH Auden as their lyricist: probably not a Broadway smash but a musical truer to Cervantes’ purpose.

Inspired casting, such as Peter O’Toole in the movie version, can still rescue the show. Grammer, however, has no such capacity. In the TV show Frasier, he played a man who couldn’t make up his mind. Here, as the Don’s fake chin hair suddenly came off, he seemed like a man who couldn’t make up his beard. More seriously, Grammer has neither the haggard mien nor the sense of otherworldliness to make a plausible hero. There is an irrevocable sanity about him that makes his casting seem oddly quixotic.

The one consolation is Danielle de Niese as Aldonza, the tavern-girl mistaken by the Don for a heroine of romance (at some performances the role is played by Cassidy Janson). We know De Niese has a fine voice but she also acts and dances with spirit even when she is being aggressively mauled by rapacious muleteers. Peter Polycarpou has little to do as an underwritten Sancho Panza and Nicholas Lyndhurst spins out his equally tenuous role as a drunken innkeeper.

I suspect this is a musical, initially staged off-Broadway, that might gain from a chamber revival. Here all the stops are pulled out but, despite the commitment of the ENO orchestra, the result is a misfire. It says much that only a giant staircase, constantly lowered in James Noone’s metallic design, was moving.

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