AN UNROMANTIC CAMELOT
(This review was written for BLICKPUNKT MUSICAL, the German magazine on international musical theatre for which Mr. Dwyer is US reviewer.)
If you were American and grew up in the 1960’s, the musical “Camelot”, which opened in 1960, looms large in fond memory: Jackie Kennedy, after the assassination of President Kennedy, likened his White House to the idyllic realm; Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, who famously played King Arthur and Guenevere, were superstars; and, the dashing Robert Goulet, the original Lancelot, rocketed to fame on the country’s top television variety show “Ed Sullivan”. The Broadway cast album was a chart-topping LP that families played on their new, fancy stereo systems. The songs by the famous team of Alan J. Lerner (music) and Frederick Loewe (book and lyrics) remain beloved.
It’s a tall order to mount a revival more than 60 years later, in a world full of turmoil and cynicism; one might expect the romance of the legend of the knights of the Round Table on which “Camelot” is based to be a vehicle to fill the existential void. Instead, Alan Sorkin, playwright and Oscar and Emmy-winning screenwriter, has teamed up with Bartlett Sher, the brilliant director of grand musical revivals (“South Pacific” “The King and I’, “My Fair Lady”) to create - with a new book by Sorkin - an inert “Camelot” stripped of its romantic essence.
Sorkin takes the well-known Arthurian legend, based on T.H, White’s 1959 novel “The Once and Future King” on which Loewe based the original musical and infuses Arthur with an egalitarian, not monarchical, disposition. In this new version, Arthur expounds on modern notions of democracy, justice , equality, and science. This “Camelot” isn’t Medieval-based, it’s Enlightenment-based through a 21st century lens.
With an intermission, the show runs nearly three hours; some patches of the book, particularly in Act 2, seem endless. This “Camelot” has lots of negative space, not only in terms of dialogue but also production design. The austere sets make the stage of the Vivean Beaumont at Lincoln Center, one of the largest and deepest in New York, seem vacant. The lighting, given the import of Sorkin’s version, is dark and brooding.
The lack of intimacy prevails, which is problematic: “Camelot” is basically a love story. Guenevere, a French princess, and Arthur, the English king (by mistake, having pulled the sword from the stone) try to make good on a monarchical marriage. Enter Lancelot, the handsome Frenchman, whose allegiance to the chivalrous, moral order of the Round Table is challenged by his ardor for Guenevere, and eventually their ardor for each other.
Sing as beautifully as the leads do, the problem is there is little chemistry between Arthur (Andre Burnap, last seen in the drama “The Inheritance") and Guenevere (Philipa Soo, the original Eliza Schuyler Hamilton in “Hamilton”). Nor is there anything that suggests passion between Guenevere and Lancelot (Jordan Donica, last seen as Freddy in “My Fair Lady’). What’s more there’s little alpha vs alpha between Arthur and Lancelot over Guenevere.
The Lerner and Loewe score, its performance and orchestrations prevail as this revival’s assets. But, the individual songs succeed more as discrete performances, as they now don’t seem as relevant to Sorkin’s new book (or his book to the songs). Jordan makes a commanding entrance and performance of the vocally challenging “C’est Moi” and richly delivers the romantic classic, “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Soo, of superior soprano technique, sets the tone for her Guenevere early on with “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood.” With Burnap, the couple achieve a few moments of connectedness in the whimsical and bittersweet duet “What Do the Simple Folks Do”. The male ensemble’s “Fie on Goodness”, the Knight’s macho challenge to Arthur’s high-mindedness, blessedly musters real energy. An earlier ensemble number, “The Lusty Month of May”, gets torpedoed by inane choreography.
As one knows, the lover’s plight of Guenevere and Lancelot has no “happy ever aftering”. After banishing them, Arthur encounters a young stowaway behind battle lines, and in wistful yearning for the ideals of chivalry and memories of his own youth, encourages the young boy to run and spread the word of the Round Table. As the theme of “Camelot” swells from the orchestra pit, the scene typically puts a lump in one’s throat. Not here This "Camelot" is a too much head and too little heart.