Let’s get this straight right out of the gate: the naysayers will be disappointed to hear that Kelsey Grammer has the acting and singing chops to pull off the dual (and difficult) role of Don Quixote/Miguel de Cervantes in the new English National Opera production of Man of La Mancha that opened at the London Coliseum in London’s West End last week in a limited 6 week run. Sadly, Grammer (or the terrific supporting cast) is not the problem with this production that attempts to “reinterpret” and contemporize the beautiful source material. More on this later but director Lonny Price should have had more faith in the original production.
Absent from the London stage since 1968 when Australian actor Keith Michell memorably originated the role, Man of La Mancha has always been a musical (really, a musical within a play) associated with Richard Kiley, its original lead when the show opened in New York’s Greenwich Village in November 1965. Up until Man of La Mancha debuted, Kiley had always been a reliable (if not indelible) leading man in productions of Kismet and No Strings. That all changed for Kiley when the 43-year-old actor put his indelible mark on Quixote/Cervantes and the role forever became associated with him and he became the baseline to which all future actors were compared. Follow up actors who took on the role --- and some very fine actors including Hal Holbrook, Jose Ferrer, David Atkinson and Brian Stokes Mitchell (just to name a few) have played Quixote over the past 50 years --- performed well but the comparison was always Richard Kiley.
In some ways, Grammar is uniquely suited to the role of Quixote/Cervantes. While Grammar is best known for his two-decade-long portrayal of psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane on the NBC sitcoms Cheers and Frasier, there is a certain stuffiness and pompousness that are very much character traits in the Cervantes character and are assets to Grammer. Moreover, Grammer’s baritone, while not as deeply melodious as Richard Kiley, has a gentle and earnest tone that goes to the heart of the Quixote character, especially during his interactions with Aldonza/Dulcinea. Conductor David White created beautiful new arrangements for the signature songs “The Impossible Dream” and “Dulcinea” that wonderfully comprehends Grammer’s singing range without damaging the original arrangement structure of the score.
Strangely, though, director Lonny Price made the decision in this production to frame the show (at the onset) not in early 16th century Spain, but contemporarily in a nameless, fascist state. While the play within a play format is preserved as Quixote’s adventures occur during the 16th century, the action takes place not in a dungeon overseen by the Spanish Inquisition but in what looks like a bomb-out basement of a museum with works of art strewn around. Graffiti adorns the basement wall (“The Prologue is Past” is scribbled menacingly on one of the walls). Political correctness has seemingly crept into this production as references to the Catholic Church, Moors and Muslim names have been curiously scrubbed from this production. Even the vaunted “Inquisition” is not described as “Spanish”. All of this doesn’t fatally harm the production, but it doesn’t advance it either, creating confusion for those patrons (and there are many of them) who have seen an original production.
Having said this, it’s easy to understand why Price made these alterations as the temptation to contemporize Man of La Mancha is certainly seductive given today’s politics and the infuriating rise of fake news. This musical, which was a surprise, massive hit in 1965 and ran on Broadway for almost 6 years (2,328 performances), ran decidedly upstream against the big production mega-hits of the day that included Mame, Fiddler on the Roof and Hello Dolly!. It has always been a musical that has a point of view and something to say. One of my favorite lines from the show is where Quixote tells his friends that “Facts are the enemy of truth”, a contradictory statement that is bound to appeal to both extremes of today’s political spectrum.
The overall cast is quite good: Danielle de Niese is both a strong singer and actor as Aldonza/Dulcinea and Peter Polycarpou’s Sancho Panza is both amusing and engaging. I particularly liked Nicholas Lyndhurst’s take on the usually stoic role as The Innkeeper by performing his dual role as The Innkeeper in a funny, consistently inebriated manner. But the star of the show is the English National Opera orchestra that performs the score of Man of La Mancha with almost time machine-like faithfulness. I have seen Man of La Mancha performed many times during my life and never has the score been performed so well and sounded so gloriously gorgeous. It is for this exact reason that I hope the English National Opera records this show before it ends it runs in June.
While Man of La Mancha is one of the more enduring musical classics of all time and is unquestionably a central element of the America theater canon, there are cynics who have never liked the show, claiming it is too upbeat and optimistic --- too saccharine. For those people, I think they miss the point of the show. Despite the imperfections of this production, I think the nobility in the performances, as well as the power of the material and the score itself, makes this show noteworthy to see. If you dismiss the misguided attempts to modernize it, there is grace and elegance in this production of Man of La Mancha that I think we could all could use a little of in our lives today.