The Lincoln Center Theater's revival of "Camelot" finally awakens, after a 90-minute first part. Jordan Donica as Lancelot who is in England to be a part of King Arthur's Round Table tears into the boastful "C'est Moi" like a lion with its teeth.
The show that opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Thursday, seems to be satisfied and then goes back into sleep, like 'Brigadoon'.
Would that it was! The 1960 Lerner-Loewe musical "Camelot," based on T.H. White's Arthurian stories have what one might call a "post-opera" problem. It aims to strike a balance between being agreeable nonsense and Sondheimesque drama, combining Arthur's romance with a free-spirited Queen with his rethinking about governance with a recalcitrant Gentry. The show and both fail in a way the 1947 hit 'Brigadoon' by the same team, which aimed lower, did not.
The clever, light-weight style of Lerner’s dialogue and the showy triple rhymes in his lyrics clash with his ambition. Loewe's polished music in songs such as 'I wonder what the King is doing tonight?' comes to life. The opening songs, 'The Simple Joys of Maidenhood' and 'The Simple Joys of Maidenhood', are charming tea party tunes. The'serious part' only recovers in flashes, and by then it is too late. After Lancelot finishes "C'est Moi," the story is put to sleep for 40 minutes. Then, it reawakens to the sounds of a sword fight.
Aaron Sorkin didn't solve this problem with a rewrite. The director Bartlett Sher’s lavish production, which is visually and sonically stunning, has seen some improvement with Sorkin's revisions. The ridiculous supernatural subplots were removed (alongside a beautiful song called 'Follow Me,') and Guenevere's unintentional queen was strengthened by snappy backtalk. She is now like a medieval Katharine.
Sorkin is unable to solve the riddle involving the love triangle between Guenevere, (Phillipa Soo), the boyish Arthur, (Andrew Burnap), on the one hand and the handsome Lancelot on its other. The riddle: When is a line a triangle? Lerner's plot is only able to move by creating a series of questions about fidelity, which make everyone appear silly. Why should we even care?
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Sorkin attempts to bolster Lerner's droopy tales by tying the conflict of Lerner's characters into the social and political experiments of the day -- or at least of a certain time. The book is set at 'the dawn of the Enlightenment', even though it was about a thousand years after Arthur. It isn't fussy about time period. It even winks in its confused chronology. 'The Middle Ages will not end by themselves,' Arthur said, as if aware of his middling.
White's version and Lerner’s version also have the historical backfill: the idea of changing from a culture that is based on violence to one based on justice is the core of the story. It's why Arthur gathers his knights. The musical does not musicalize this, and after an hour you need a sword fight. Sorkin had Guenevere refer to the title song as 'that stupid weather song'. This praises the Camelot Revolution in pure sybaritic language. The rain may not fall until after sundown, sounds like an Airbnb boast.
Sorkin's historical additions are not supported by songs. His sidebar about the evolution of science into magic is particularly unconvincing. Merlyn (Dakin Mathews, who was excellent in this role) has become a sage and not a magician, while Morgan (MarileeTalkington) is now some sort of chemist. Let's not mention Mordred, played by Taylor Trensch. He is forced to keep the Lerner framework and cannot justify the romantic tale in modern terms or distract from it with musically logical ways.
It gives the actors something else to do than spouting off ideas. And it gives the audience something to listen to, especially when Lancelot is involved. After 'C'est Moi', he sings 'If Ever I Would leave You' and "I Loved You once in Silence." Both are almost too rich. Although Guenevere gets the majority of the tea party songs, delivered with creaminess, and Arthur gets very little (perhaps to pay homage to the voice of the original role, Richard Burton), both are attractive and play the West Wing of the Castle wit beautifully.
It's not that there is a castle. Sher's visual style has changed in his fifth Golden Age revival and fourth at Lincoln Center Theater. Jennifer Moeller's costumes are stunning, but you will want to collect all the velvet gowns and quilted tabards. Instead of spectacular scenic coups such as the orchestra in South Pacific and the 52-foot vessel in The King and I, set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Lapchi Chu, along with the projection designers from 59 Productions, have reduced everything to a handful of basic elements, including arches, screens and snow.
Sher keeps the actors moving despite having so little furniture. If the story doesn't make a triangle he will compensate by blocking dozens of them. The result is abstract and analytical. It's a bit like Byron Easley’s delicate choreography, and Lerner’s lyrics, to not be too snobby. Lerner found words for 'My Fair Lady,' which expressed the character and the period. In 'Camelot,' (without the Shaw play as a backdrop), he uses words to express himself and the 1960s.
The orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang are played by 30 musicians in the pit under the baton of Kimberly Grigsby. The soundscapes are a wonderful way to experience the story, and they make you feel things that the stage show cannot.
You may feel sad. What can be done about such a beautiful work that is tethered to intractable issues? Sher and Lincoln Center Theater can only love so many Golden Age musicals before they turn the project into Encores. Elephantiasis is a condition that can affect a person. Is Kelli O'Hara in 'Flahooley' next?
To be honest, I would be there. But 'Camelot,' a show that is promoted above its station due to its music and Kennedy era associations. It seems that neither is enough today. When the differences between people or musicals are too great, love is not enough.