There are bright shining moments aplenty in the latest Broadway revival of “Camelot,” the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical about the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. These are mostly found in the tuneful score, which is played by a sumptuous 30-piece orchestra (with three trumpets — enough for a fanfare!) and sung by a talented cast led by three appealing young stars, who are the main draw after the score: Andrew Burnap (Tony winner for The Inheritance) as King Arthur; Phillipa Soo (who made a splash in Hamilton and has proven herself one of New York theater’s go-to leading ladies in the decade since) as Guenevere, Arthur’s at first reluctant Queen; and Jordan Donica (who sang the swoon-worthy “On The Street Where You Live” in the last revival of “My Fair Lady”) as Lancelot du Lac, a knight who reveres Arthur but falls in love with Guenevere, singing the swoon-worthy “If Ever I Should Leave You” to her.
But, as entertaining as the musical numbers are, it’s hard not to be disappointed by this production. That’s largely because it’s too easy to expect too much from it.
This is the musical, after all, that Jackie Kennedy invested with historical significance when, shortly after her husband was assassinated, she said “Camelot” was JFK’s favorite musical, and she singled out the catchy refrain that King Arthur sings at the end, when his efforts at creating a peaceful kingdom have been dashed:
Don’t let it be forgot
that once there was a spot
for one brief shining moment
that was known as …
This inevitably prompted a widespread analogy: Just as the kingdom loses its idealism in the show, so too did our country after the death of President Kennedy.
But the muddled, mostly lightweight libretto, adapted from T.H. White’s fantasy novel, “The Once and Future King” and focused largely on the love triangle, never really deserved such heavy symbolism.
One might have expected Aaron Sorkin, hired to rewrite Alan Jay Lerner’s book, to be the ideal choice to make it weightier politically, given his experience writing such shows as “The West Wing” and “The American President.” But there is just so much he can do, given the impossibility of changing the songs. He’s written dialogue around some to reflect modern sensibilities. He’s gotten rid of the magic: Merlin (an outstanding Dakin Matthews) is no longer a wizard; he’s a wise man; Morgan Le Fey (Marilee Talkington) is no longer an evil sorceress; she’s an evil chemist. These changes don’t bother me. But others do. And on balance, it’s hard for me to see what Sorkin has done as an improvement.
As in the original, Guenevere, a princess from France (Phillipa Soo), is sent to England to marry King Arthur, as part of a peace treaty between England and France, but she’s a reluctant bride, and after arriving at Camelot, the king’s castle, she tries to run away, encountering a stranger, unaware that he is in fact King Arthur (Andrew Burlap)
“If you whisk me out of here and to my freedom, I can pay you a royal bride’s dowry,” she says.
Arthur is momentarily speechless; Guenevere expresses impatience. So Arthur says:
“Give me a moment, Your Highness. I’m in a multi-layered complication right now.”
The line is surely meant to be funny, not least because it’s not the way we imagine a king in the Middle Ages would speak. But outweighing the humor is its jarring inelegance and verbosity. Sorkin’s colloquial dialogue too often undermines the production’s effort at majesty and at seriousness of purpose.
Arthur is soon revealed to Guernevere as the king, they sing the title song together, which is lovely. But, in keeping with Sorkin’s jokey informality, she later calls it a “stupid song about the weather.”
Once married, Jenny (as she prefers to be called) helps Arthur with his idealistic vision for his kingdom, calling knights from near and far to gather around a round table and practice civility not civil war. One of the knights who answers the call is the French man Lancelot du Lac (Jordan Danica.) He obviously has eyes for Jenny, and she for him.
Here Arthur engages in a soliloquy in which he tries to square his jealousy and desire for vengeance with his sense of himself as “a civilized king, dedicated, with all my limited abilities, to the belief that we should be governed by laws and not wealth, station,
power nor human emotion.”
It’s a stirring speech, and Burnap delivers it as somebody who has matured into his duties over the course of the play. Arthur is king, as he sheepishly explains to Jenny early on, only because when he was 15, he pulled the sword called Excalibur out of a stone, not realizing that this was a contest. (This is magical in the original, but here, Jenny suggests, he was able to do this just because the previous contestants loosened the hold.) Arthur’s speech is also in the original script. Sorkin embellishes it just slightly– but enough to make me roll my eyes, slightly. Would a medieval king, no matter how enlightened, sound so much like a 21st century Democrat?
The deterioration of Arthur’s dream for Camelot in Act II, which is set off by Arthur’s evil son out of wedlock, Mordred (a suitably punk Taylor Trensch) and Lancelot and Jenny’s adultery, struck me as no less convoluted and cockamamie than the original. But I’ll admit I started to drift. Sorkin could have made a more noticeable and much appreciated contribution had he mercilessly cut the show down from its current three-hour running time.
The direction by Bartlett Sher is again a matter of expectation. I loved the exciting swordfight, choreographed by fight director B. H. Barry, and I was happy with Michael Yeargan’s set design, which, if somewhat minimal and monochromatic, has a certain kind of majesty that takes advantage of the vast Vivian Beaumont stage. (Jennifer Moeller’s costumes add some color.). But Sher is known best for his grand and gorgeous revivals of Golden Age musicals for Lincoln Center (“South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “My Fair Lady”), and there is little in “Camelot” that suggests the same golden touch – that compares, for example, to such of Yeargan’s ravishing spectacles as the magnificent ship that slid out into nearly the middle of the auditorium in a rolling fog in “The King and I.”
“Camelot” has a fascinating back story, an earworm of a score, and an unfortunate book. It’s surely a candidate for some Once and Future Concert Series.
Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater
Closing July 23, 2023
Tickets: $48 to $298. Digital lottery: $44
Running time: Three hours including a 15 minute intermission
Music by Frederick Loewe. Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Book by Aaron Sorkin. Based on the original book by Alan Jay Lerner. Directed by Bartlett Sher.
Music direction by Kimberly Grigsby. Choreography by Byron Easley. Set design by Michael Yeargan. Costume design by Jennifer Moeller. Lighting by Lap Chi Chu. Sound design by Marc Salzberg and Beth Lake. Projections by 59 Productions. Hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan. Fight direction by B. H. Barry. Vocal and dialect coach Kate Wilson. Orchestrations Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang. Dance and choral arrangements by Trude Rittmann.
Cast: Andrew Burnap as King Arthur, Phillipa Soo as Queen Guernevere, Jordan Donica as Lancelot, Dakin Matthews as Merlyn and Pellinore, Taylor Trensch as Mordred, Marilee Talkington as Morgan Le Fey, Camden McKinnon as Tom of Warwick, Anthony Michael Lopez as Sir Dinadan, Fergie Philippe as Sir Sagramore, Danny Wolohan as Sir Lionel, Delphi Borich as Lady Sybil, Matías De La Flor, Solá Fádìran, Rachel Fairbanks, Nkrumah Gatling, Christian Mark Gibbs, Holly Gould, Monte Green, David Hughey, Edwin Joseph, Tesia Kwarteng, James Romney, Ann Sanders, Britney Nicole Simpson, Philip Stoddard, Valerie Torres-Rosario, Frank Viveros, Paul Whitty as Dap
Photos by Joan Marcus
I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?
The Simple Joys of Maidenhood
The Lusty Month of May
Take Me to the Fair
How to Handle a Woman
Before I Gaze at You Again
If Ever I Would Leave You
The Seven Deadly Virtues
What Do the Simple Folk Do?
The Simple Joys of Maidenhood (Reprise)
Fie on Goodness!
I Loved You Once in Silence