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Review: MAN OF LA MANCHA at Châtelet

Homme de La Mancha

For only four performances the past two weekends, the Châtelet in Paris was alive again with the sound of musicals we've been missing so much here. Boasting 2300 performances, and no less than four revivals on Broadway, Man of La Mancha ranks among the most performed musicals around the world. The book is by Dale Wasserman, based on his own teleplay on the fictional life of Don Quixote and that of his creator Cervantes, a very melodic score by Mitch Leigh, his first musical effort and his only big success, and lyrics by Joe Darion, which gave us at least two standards, the title song and "The Impossible Dream", the latter recorded not only by Jacques Brel but by Johnny Halliday and Julien Clerc.

Review: MAN OF LA MANCHA at Châtelet Belgian-born Jacques Brel fell in love with the piece when his wife Miche brought the cast recording to his attention, after which he supposedly attended a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 1967, where he strongly identified with Quixote and his dreams. As big a star as he was, though, it wasn't a walk in the park for him to get the rights, and he even had to audition for the original writing team because the role required more of an operatic range than he was used to. He also had to prove that he could sing without a microphone (remember, this is Broadway in the 60s!) and agree to keep the original staging and choreography, bringing in original director Albert Marre to France, along with his wife Joan Diener to re-portray Dulcinea, and, as choreographer, the legendary jazz pioneer Jack Cole in his only Parisian gig.

When the musical had first played at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 1965, Rex Harrison, who starred in the stage and film versions of the musical My Fair Lady, was considered for the lead, but the musical demands of the Quixote/Cervantes part quickly proved too hefty. Richard Kiley took on the challenging role instead and won a Tony for his performance, a performance he reprised for the 1972 and 1977 revivals, Raul Julia then starred in the 1992 revival, the vocally impressive Brian Stokes Mitchell shined in 2002, and Kelsey Grammar delivered a fine performance in the classic but class London revival at the Coliseum in 2019.

Review: MAN OF LA MANCHA at Châtelet Peter O'Toole was actually dubbed when he played Don Quixote in the movie version, notable for including the only musical performance Sofia Loren's screen career (once rumored to be starring in Hello Dolly, which unfortunately never happened). That 1972 Arthur Hiller film has a bizarre flavor to it, which makes it hard to watch today.

This 2021 French-speaking revival, co-produced by La Monnaie in Brussels and the Théâtre de Liège goes many steps further in updating Man of La Mancha to the world of today, celebrating Brussels itself in a contemporary vision, sometimes a little bit at odds with the classic Broadway qualities of the score. Leading an energetic and diverse company, directed by Michael De c*ckand Junior Mthombeni, is a moving performance by Filip Jordens, who won acclaim as Jacques Brel himself in a recent tribute show and whose voice and looks are quite reminiscent of the French star. Other outstanding performances are from Pierre Derhet as the priest and the barber in drag and Ana Naqe, equally vocally remarkable as Dulcinea, although her French is not always understandable. From the world of pop, Nadine Baboye is excellent in the slam number. Tenor Christophe Herrada is effective in the triple part of Dr. Carrasco, the Duke, and the Knight of Mirrors. The mix of operatic and pop voices work well in this production, adding on to the overall message of diversity.

Review: MAN OF LA MANCHA at Châtelet Brel's adaptation takes a lot of liberties, more reflecting the singer's own demons. So, the lyrics "little bird, little bird, do you sing for me?" become "sans amour, sans amour, que'est-ce que vivre veut dire?" ("without love, without love, what does life mean?"), but we too are currently striving more for "Impossible Dreams"! What we could have done without, however, is the overuse of video production on a huge screen that is part of a construction site metaphoric of today's Brussels -always distracting, as in the last revival of West Side Story on Broadway. It takes the audience away from the action, especially here by strangely including small interviews of the actors prior to and even during the actual show!

Review: MAN OF LA MANCHA at Châtelet The presence of the orchestra onstage, nimbly directed by Bassem Akiki, is a plus, on the other hand, making this production more of a stage concert in the vein of the Chicago revival. After all, the original production only had one set, albeit less dilapidated than this one, designed by Gerardo Salinas. Still, it's more effective than some of the unnecessary contemporary jokes about the Prime Minister of France and some dirty visual innuendos, especially since we already know that Dulcinea is actually a prostitute. This show is, in the end, about a dream which is supposed to take people to higher spheres and not lower ones, yet the harsh description of the Inquisition, with the burning of Cervantes book, has direct relevance to growing authoritarian world of today, sometimes leaving the dreamers in a strict lockdown not so different from a prison!

Like all great Broadway musicals, Man of La Mancha can be interpreted in many ways, and this bold staging at the Châtelet really has the merits of being very different from past ones while paying tribute to the Belgian legend who first had the guts to achieve his dream of bringing it to French audiences back in 1968 at the Théâtre de Champs Elysées. Thanks again to the Châtelet for proving that musical theater is, like Brel, "alive and well living in Paris"! We can't wait for the delayed revival of the Stephen Mear-directed 42nd Street, hopefully in the Fall.

From This Author - Patrick Honoré

Patrick Honoré runs the magazine and has been a musical theater critic for 15 years, sarting as the French Musical Corespondant for the paper edition of Musical Stages in Lon... (read more about this author)

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