By: Samuel L. Leiter
April 22, 2023: Few New York legitimate theatres have the vast spatial resources of the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center to create the kind of visually stunning impression one gets on entering it for the problematic new revival of Frederick Loewe (music) and Alan Jay Lerner’s (original book and lyrics) Camelot. That’s the 1960 show, of course, that Jackie Kennedy said was JFK’s favorite, and whose title remains, for many, synonymous with his truncated presidency. Designers Michael Yeargan (sets) and Lap Chi Chu (lighting) present a strikingly romantic image of snow falling within a purplish haze on a huge plain, the forestage thrusting into the audience, covered by a white ground cloth, backed by a bleak, black tree, all of it placed under a soaring series of half a dozen or so gigantic, permanent arches.
There is much else of visual beauty in Bartlett Sher’s staging, with choreography by Byron Easley, of this classic musical, inspired by T.H. White’s tales of King Arthur and the Round Table, The Once and Future King. The present revival is a major effort by the man who did such wonders with other golden age musicals, like The King and I and My Fair Lady, not only using a new book by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” To Kill a Mockingbird), but providing a 30-member pit orchestra playing Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang’s lush, original orchestrations under Kimberly Grigsby’s direction.
In the roles introduced by the pricelessly charismatic trio of Richard Burton (as King Arthur), Robert Goulet (as the French knight Lancelot du Lac), and Julie Andrews (as Queen Guenevere) are, respectively, Tony-winning Andrew Burnap (The Inheritance), Jordan Donica (My Fair Lady), and Phillipa Soo (Hamilton). However, for all their talent and attractiveness, they fall short of the show’s romantic demands. Ms. Soo scores highest, given the spirit of rebellious independence with which Mr. Sorkin has invested the role.
Mr. Sorkin’s book follows the same basic trajectory as Mr. Lerner’s much criticized one, but he’s altered the dialogue considerably, stressed various political ideals (such as themes of “right for might” and equality) to allow for disillusion when they crumble, and, sadly, excised the element of magic. Merlyn, the magician (the excellent Dakin Matthews, who also plays King Pellinore in the manner of a comically doddering Polonius), is stripped of supernatural powers, and dies because he’s 104, not because a nymph lured him away. Morgan Le Fay (Marilee Talkington) has been transformed from a sorceress to a “scientist,” which is how she actually describes herself; it sounds just as out of place on the stage as it looks on the page. The word was first coined in the 1830s, but Mr. Sorkin has said, oddly, he was seeking to avoid historical specificity (thereby excusing other anachronisms in the process).
Among other significant alterations is making Morgan Le Fey the mother instead of the aunt of Arthur’s illegitimate son, the wicked Mordred (Taylor Trensch), and having Arthur serve as the third of the knights defeated by Lancelot in a jousting scene spurred on by Guenevere; it’s Arthur, now, who’s miraculously brought back from the dead by Lancelot’s ministrations, not Sir Lionel (Danny Wolohan). And, in the quest for realism over miracle, the script suggests that Arthur’s success at yanking Excalibur from the stone in which it was embedded—the deed that elevated him from commoner to king—happened because it had been loosened by the 9,999 previous tries at its extraction.
Mr. Sorkin’s adaptation muddies the twin love stories, that of Arthur and Guenevere, who meet cute at the start when she mistakes him for a commoner, and that of Guenevere and the at first annoyingly narcissistic Lancelot, with whom she moves beyond a mere kiss and actually sleeps with him. The attempt to make Arthur a boorish spouse by having him praise his marriage as a business partnership lands with a too modern thud, not just on “Jenny’s” ears but on ours. Further, the casting of the boyish Mr. Burnap, looking more like a callow college student than a monarch, isn’t ideal; you may be pondering his being Mordred’s dad before it’s mentioned that the boy is 14, fathered when Arthur was 15. They look more like brothers than father and son.
Even if you don’t know the score intimately, you’ll likely—depending on your age—thrill to its more renowned songs, particularly the title number, “Camelot,” “How to Handle a Woman,” which has been shortened, and the glorious “If Ever I Should Leave You,” so closely associated with Mr. Goulet and here powerfully rendered by Mr. Donica’s powerful baritone. All the others remain, as well, apart from “Follow Me,” too magical for Mr. Sorkin’s more realistically based approach.
Regardless of what one thinks of how well Mr. Sorkin’s book tells the story, it’s hard not to feel there’s simply too much of it, making the nearly three-hour show seem even longer. It’s a shame Lerner and Loewe didn’t provide more music. At times the show comes off like a Maxwell Anderson historical drama, now and then lightened by a musical number; too many extended scenes depend on talk, when they might have been sung. And when there’s little or no musical underscoring, dullness creeps in. The language, spoken with high-toned American accents (not British), is more or less contemporary, yet, as acted, it often sounds too stagey for its own good.
Mr. Sher’s staging is elegantly lovely, although even as sizable a company as this, with its 27 performers, can look sparse on such a large, open stage set with highly selective scenery. Fight director B.J. Barry has created several exciting, well-executed combat scenes, and the visuals are enhanced by excellent projections from 59 Productions. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes, however, mingle modernist styles with a generalized medieval feeling in a manner that, while pretty, rarely creates a magical world of legendary kings, ladies, knights, and castles.
And magic is exactly what this Camelot most obviously lacks.
Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th Street, NYC
Photography: Joan Marcus