By: Isa Goldberg
April 23, 2023: In the news: mass murder, BLM, the price of gas, and food, not to mention the war in Ukraine. And Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot” is at Lincoln Center.
Speaking about the power of love – that would an anachronism in our time. But a swashbuckling Romance, like “Camelot” – that may be something of an irony. Fortunately, as adapted by Aaron Sorkin, it’s something of an elixir here.
Harkening back to “The Knights of the Round Table”, the musical takes us from the marriage of King Arthur, to the end of the Arthurian prose cycles. Bringing into focus the warring factions that sprang up over King Arthur’s wife’s adulterous affair with Lancelot, the musical speaks to the principles of Law and Justice.
Sorkin’s book, based on the original work, by Alan Jay Lerner, politicizes the story – giving credence to the personal stress, and the public nature of the marriage of King Arthur to Queen Guenevere. By eliminating the fairy tale magic from the myth, their humanity is believable.
Here, Queen Guenevere debunks King Arthur’s bravura about his heroism – that he became King by pulling the sword from the stone. In her more democratic view, it was really loosened by the 10,000 men who had tried before him.
Portraying Queen Guenevere, Philipa Soo is both dainty, and regal, with a lilting soprano voice. While she doesn’t register Julie Andrew’s panache she is charming, in spite of herself, espousing the life of abandon – embracing convivial joy. That she also breathes maturity into her character, leads to a heartbreaking outcome. The romance that breathes for a brief shining moment, ends that quickly.
Andrew Burnap’s King Arthur is youthful, and innocent in the sense of incorruptible. While he describes himself as “underwhelming in person”, he is big when it comes to understanding his own power. And he stands by his resolve, that in this time of King Arthur, forgiveness and judgement will prevail – not revenge.
The knights themselves are a forceful ensemble. We see them first walking from the back of the stage, on to a snow covered field, as if they had walked up a mountain to arrive at this plateau. As staged by Bartlett Sher it’s visually arresting.
Suited in full armor, their swords express the life of jostling, but camaraderie is what they display. It’s a diverse troop with Anthony Michael Lopez, Fergie Philippe, and Danny Wolohan as the knights of the round table.
As Sir Lancelot, Jordan Donica outsizes the others. Tall, gangly and handsome he looks like he should play Jalvert – the villainous police inspector in Les Mis. There is evil in his eyes.
In the role of the invidious, illegitimate son of King Arthur, Taylor Trench is too quirky, and dislikable. It’s an outstanding character portrayal, as is the role of his mother. As played by Marilee Talkington, she is an evil look alike to Margaret Thatcher, or at least in the way she’s portrayed on “The Crown.”
Giving weight to the King’s endeavors, Dakin Matthews portrays Merlyn, the philosopher and mentor. A very reassuring presence, his.
Director Bartlett Sher collaborates yet again with set designer Michael Yeargan, to create this vision – the sensory world of romance. One tree, snow falling onto a white sheet. When the actors catch their feet on the folds – the little waves and drifts of snow, create new patterns.
With wardrobe by Jennifer Moeller, Queen Guenevere is irresistible in royal blue and red velvet gowns. Amidst the chilly armor that surrounds her, she stands strong.
A small orchestra of strings and woodwinds accompanies Loew’s memorable score. And Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics express the nostalgia for a time long gone. “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”.
Of course, the musical is beloved for its evocation of the Kennedy era. Indeed, it was a favorite of President Kennedy. It spoke to his sense of heroism. As Jackie Kennedy opined after his death, Jack loved reading The Knights of the Round Table…” It made him see the heroes.”
As revived here, it is a complicated story. Rife with personal loss, and also with political optimism, it speaks to our time, and to our desire to instill democracy in our world. That this revival at Lincoln Center also looks so precious, expensive, and self-consciously produced is a recognizable footnote to that quest.
Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th St., NYC.
Running time: two hours and 55 mins. including intermission. telecharge.com. April 13—Sept. 3.
Photography: Joan Marcus