'Camelot' review — this shining kingdom's revival has bright and dull spots
Read our review of the latest Camelot Broadway revival, with songs by Lerner and Loewe and a new book by Aaron Sorkin, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
The optimistic notion that greatness is within reach if only for “one brief, shining moment” is indelibly ingrained in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1960 musical Camelot. Director Bartlett Sher’s gray and forbidding revival of the classic show could definitely use a bit more shine. It’s dark a lot in this Camelot.
Running 3 hours at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, the production is stately and beautifully sung, yet it’s seldom exciting or joyful. That's a long sit for, essentially, a relatively straightforward story.
England’s King Arthur (Andrew Burnap) marries French Princess Guenevere (Phillipa Soo) in a political setup to ensure peace and prosperity. The young and idealistic Arthur strives to make his realm, Camelot, a utopian place of chivalry and justice for all.
But it all curdles when Guenevere and Lancelot (Jordan Donica), a countryman from France and one of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, give in to their passions. Chalk that up to personal chemistry and outside enablers. The inevitable ensues: war.
Lerner and Loewe’s songs tend to be light, whether it’s Arthur’s whimsical “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight,” Guenevere's lively “The Lusty Month of May,” or Lance’s self-celebratory “C’est Moi.” Here, the songs and the production are a bit of a mismatch.
Beyond the physical elements that bend into shadows, the new book by Aaron Sorkin (To Kill a Mockingbird) is a mixed bag. Guenevere plays a big role in shaping Camelot and its lofty “might for right” ideals, while the story points out that a marriage as a business deal is a shaky proposition. These modern ideas fit naturally enough in this period tale.
As widely reported, Sorkin has stripped the plot of magic and supernatural references in Lerner’s original book based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Merlyn (Dakin Matthews) can no longer turn someone into a bird. But he knows that when a powerful ruler determines to do good, danger will come knocking. It’s another contemporary talking point that spans eras.
But the book also stupefies. In the original version, Morgan Le Fey was a sorceress who casts a spell that traps Arthur within invisible walls. As played by Marilee Talkington in a strange scene, Morgan is a confident scientist, so she says, who fiddles around doing something in her lair situated in a spooky, knotty forest. She can’t do magic. But she’s great with numbers, which matters because… it's unclear.
Arthur’s all-important absence from the castle, enabling lusty Guenevere and Lancelot to be alone, is engineered by Morgan and Arthur’s bastard son, Mordred (Taylor Trensch). The manipulative teen knows how to push his sensitive father's buttons. He’s a creep right out of The Social Network.
Sorkin can’t resist having Morgan spit out a winking, on-the-nose zinger about bad leadership, or, better, one unnamed man. “Oh,” she says, “you’d be amazed at who people will follow.” Just how Camelot is an exemplary source of justice for all doesn’t quite come through. Knights keep grousing that “equality is a myth made by the less-than-equal.” So where, exactly, is that one brief, shining moment?
In the end, the songs, the 30-piece orchestra, and the principals are bright spots. Burnap, a Tony winner for The Inheritance, beams a genuine earnestness that fits Arthur. Donica, who played Freddy in Sher’s My Fair Lady, makes the famous song "If Ever I Would Leave You" a highlight. Soo, a very fine actor and a gorgeous singer, further establishes herself as a star who shines no matter what.
Photo credit: Phillipa Soo, Andrew Burnap, Dakin Matthews, Jordan Donica, and company in Lincoln Center Theater's production of Camelot. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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