LONDON — Man of La Mancha is being revived at the London Coliseum, starring Kelsey Grammer as a blustery Don Quixote. Directed by Lonny Price, with the English National Opera’s 30-piece orchestra, it’s a luscious delight.
For the show — the 1966 Tony Award winner for Best Musical — lyricist Joe Darion and composer Mitch Leigh crafted a perfect score, built on a base of Spanish guitars periodically punctured by explosions of brass.
Leigh’s skill is clearest in the rousing opening number, “I, Don Quixote.” The rest of the songs zigzag from gorgeous three-way counterpoint (“I’m Only Thinking of Him”) to vocal fireworks showpiece (“It’s All The Same”) to heartbreaking primal scream (“Aldonza”).
London critics were harsh and treated the score as a display case for its biggest hit, “The Impossible Dream,” with many eviscerating the anthem for its sentimentality. In fact, the soaring theatrics of “Dream” only make sense in the context of the rest of the show, which is based on a tiny slice of Don Quixote and more chamber opera than musical.
Conductor David White wrote wonderful new orchestrations. The overture echoing off the Coliseum’s ceilings is a highlight of the evening.
La Mancha occupies a transitional place in Broadway’s Silver Age, bridging the gap between Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret. What sets it apart from those earth-shatterers is its unabashed nostalgia. Along with the David Merrick extravaganzas of the mid-‘60s (Hello, Dolly!; Carnival ), it’s a last gasp of the fully traditional stage musical before Sondheim upended the form in 1970, with Company.
Grammer struggles with the more physical demands of his role – which is most obvious during a fight sequence that he wins, even though he barely moves. And there’s the antique construction of the book, by Dale Wasserman, which double-casts the actor playing Quixote as Miguel de Cervantes, re-enacting his novel while awaiting trial by the Spanish Inquisition.
It’s all beside the point. The chief attraction of La Mancha, which hasn’t been produced on the West End since its original production here in 1968, is the music. And it has rarely sounded better.
Man of La Mancha is at the London Coliseum until June 8th.