Somewhere between the confusion of Chess and the genius of Blazing Saddles lies the latest addition to London’s West End, Dale Wasserman and Mitch Leigh’s Man of La Mancha.

Argued by the producers to be Broadway’s best-kept secret, Man of La Mancha is not a show that many audiences are familiar with. After long legal negotiation, the team who brought Chess to the same venue last year have revived the musical that was last seen in London’s West End in 1968.

BWW Review: MAN OF LA MANCHA, London ColiseumIn a futuristic holding pen for what is supposed to have been during the Spanish Inquisition, protagonist playwright Miguel de Cervantes portrays eccentric knight Don Quixote as a distraction for his fellow captives while he runs down the clock to protect his life and possessions.

The narrative of the piece seems to be about Cervantes buying himself time; Act I certainly proves this to be the case. Without any real purpose, the story meanders aimlessly to the climax through the medium of the show’s most recognisable standard.

The passion behind Kelsey Grammer’s “The Impossible Dream” is evident. Those expecting a belting, Andy Williams-esque close to Act I will be disappointed, but Grammer’s presents the man behind the song, focussing on the character’s journey rather than just looking for the big finish.

The plot could be more urgent and hurried, better reflecting the struggle of Cervantes himself, for whom the clock is always ticking – a subject that is never really reflected on stage. Although it’s clear through Rick Fisher’s lighting when we leave Cervantes’ imagination for reality, there’s little change in pace or tone of Grammer’s eccentric character.

There is an unpalatable awkwardness around the production’s dealing with women that extends – rather than attempting to rectify – the script’s questionable elements. Similarly, one character is camped up to the level of a 1970s sitcom gay man without any real reason why. Here, the cheap laugh is lost.

The relationship between Quixote and romantic idol Dulcinea is complicated. It’s never explicitly sexual, which allows for a much greater depth to be built between the two, but the dynamic is never really explored. Quite why this young woman decides to follow this ageing knight-to-be, no one really knows.

As the alternate Aldonza/Dulcinea (to Danielle De Niese, reviewed here), Cassidy Janson would be forgiven for feeling a little out of place amongst the otherwise established company. On the contrary, Janson brings the feisty Scottish (why is she Scottish?) waitress to life, giving the drama a much-needed burst of energy.

The character’s feisty veneer is quickly stripped, and Janson’s delicate handling of this vulnerable soul distracts from some of the more dubious elements going on around her. Her vocal talent is extraordinary, even if the score doesn’t allow this to be properly showcased.

As the billboard headliner, Grammer is a little slow on his feet – the strain of the West End schedule, perhaps – but does deliver depth to an otherwise unlikeable character.

The 30-strong ENO orchestra emphatically deliver the score under the careful instruction of David White. The score itself is oft scoffed at, but a number of sprightly tunes – “I, Don Quixote” and “I Really Like Him”, particularly – do stick in your head.

The revival doesn’t feel sure enough in the material to be self-indulgent, but neither is it strong enough to stand alone.

If it’s possible to enjoy a production at the same time as feeling confused and disappointed, Man of La Mancha is that production.

Man of La Mancha is at the London Coliseum until 8 June

Read our interviews with Cassidy Janson and Peter Polycarpou

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Originally published for Broadway World UK