Review – Man of La Mancha, London Coliseum, 4th May 2019

Man of La ManchaI 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.

Kelsey GrammerThis 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?

Kelsey Grammer and ensembleCervantes 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.

Danielle de Niese and ensembleJust 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.

Kelsey Grammer 2In 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?

dancersMrs 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.

Nicholas Lyndhurst, Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey GrammerMrs 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.

Man-of-La-Mancha-London-ColiseumOne 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.

Danielle de NieseAnd 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.

Man of La Mancha Press ImageHowever, 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.

Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey GrammerI 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.

Nicholas LyndhurstIn 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

Review – Chess, London Coliseum, 26th May 2018

ChessSome shows just stick with you, all your life. My all-time favourite remains A Chorus Line, and I know Mrs Chrisparkle has a very soft spot for the 1980s National Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, directed by Alan Ayckbourn and starring Michael Gambon. Ah, happy times. But we both have good reason to put Chess up there with our all-time greats. In that magical summer of 1986 when I was courting Miss Duncansby and we had tickets for so many top shows, Chess was the one that knocked all the others into a cocked hat. London ColiseumA cast to die for – Elaine Paige, Murray Head, Tommy Korberg; the directorial genius of Trevor Nunn; and the lavish setting of the Prince Edward Theatre. In later years, we saw Craig Revel Horwood’s thoroughly disappointing production in 2011, and tend to put it out of our mind when we think of the show in general. So now it was a chance truly to relive our youth and see Chess again in another magnificent setting, with another great cast – you could say, we were really excited.

Chess 1I don’t think I’ve ever paid so much money for a pair of theatre tickets. At £150 each plus booking fee, we worked out that it was about £1 each for every minute. Can any production really be worth that level of investment from a theatregoer? Answer: yes. We both felt that our £150 was great value for what we saw. An incredible multimedia presentation; the sumptuous sounds of the full English National Opera orchestra and chorus; a fabulous cast; and an amazing view from terrific seats. We were well happy with our investment.

Chess 8It’s true that the storyline is slight and the book itself is even slighter. Intemperate American chess champion and showbiz star Freddie Trumper arrives in Merano (where?) to defend his title against the cool, calm Anatoly Sergievsky. Having left his wife and child behind in Mother Russia, Sergievsky falls in love with Florence, the head of the American delegation. Meanwhile Trumper loses both his head and the championship; Sergievsky doesn’t return to the Soviet Union but seeks political asylum in Britain; and both Trumper and Sergievksy meet again in Bangkok for another championship, this time with Trumper commentating for American TV. Does Sergievsky leave his wife and son for Florence? Or does he return home like a good Soviet? Was Florence’s father killed in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution? Does Trumper come to his senses? Chess 6Do we care? Absolutely not. But that’s the strange thing about this show; we don’t particularly care about what happens to the characters. We do, however, care about the songs, and how the performers bring them to life for a new generation of Chess-appreciators.

The staging simply takes your breath away. What appears to be a black backdrop, with various illuminated chessboard squares scattered, as in the famous design logo that has accompanied this show since its conception, is in fact a myriad of LED/projection screens. These display both detailed and frequently exhilarating background scenery – the airplane landing at Merano, or the traditional dragon dance in Bangkok spring to mind – and close-ups (and I do mean close-up) of the cast on stage as they are constantly filmed by cameramen during the show. There is no hiding place whilst those cameramen are out and about.Chess 3 On paper this may sound intrusive or over-the-top but in reality it gives the audience a much closer involvement with what’s going on, that it renders the vast Coliseum auditorium and stage as intimate as a studio theatre; so effective an illusion that you can observe the concentration and characterisations of the actors at close hand. It works incredibly well and absolutely takes your breath away. I was totally gripped by it from the start.

Chess 7Then of course you have the orchestra! Partially hidden behind the screens, they really give the show power and depth; Bjorn and Benny’s incredible score has never sounded so lush and majestic. The Chorus also lends another aspect; whilst they augment the sound splendidly, and the vocal fullness again lends depth and vigour to the performance, it wasn’t always possible to hear precisely every word. Fortunately, and with every respect to Sir Tim Rice, you don’t really come to see Chess for the lyrics – not in the big choral numbers at least. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are great. Others… just aren’t. But it really doesn’t matter!

Chess 2As for the performances, they all irradiate power and authority exactly as you would expect; and each of the characters/performers has at least his one big moment where they bring us to our knees in awe. Michael Ball nails the Anthem, just before the interval, with an absolutely magnificent performance which gives your goosebumps goosebumps. Alexandra Burke and Cassidy Janson elevate I Know Him So Well to a higher plane, with Ms Burke in a TV studio on ground level and Ms Janson atop a bridge overlooking the stage, but captured by the cameramen on the side screens so that their images blend with each other, each looking in different directions; a simple ploy, but so effective. Tim Howar gets more raw emotion out of Pity the ChildChess 5 than I would have thought was possible; it’s like watching a man clinging on to the wreckage, yet not quite totally disintegrating on stage. (OK, Sir Tim, fair do’s, that is one helluva lyric.) Phillip Browne as Molokov rules the roost with the terrific Cossack-style The Soviet Machine, and Cedric Neal is a revelation as the charismatic, dictatorial Arbiter, showing off sensationally in The Arbiter. All this, plus superb renditions of Where I Want to Be, Nobody’s Child and One Night in Bangkok, and I was beaming from ear to ear for the entire afternoon. There was no hesitation anywhere in the audience that this performance was fully deserving of a standing ovation for each and every one of the cast.

Chess 4I’m aware that the production received many rather poor reviews when it opened, so all I can say is they must have worked the hell out of it to bring it up to the standard it was last Saturday afternoon. We loved it; and the buzz in the theatre made it clear that everyone else loved it too. If it wasn’t restricted to a very short run we’d definitely go back again for more – even at those high prices. Possibly the most extravagant production of a musical I’ve ever seen; and that extravagance hits the mark perfectly – it doesn’t strangle it, it enhances it. Total bliss.

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg