Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Camelot"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe,
based on “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White
directed by Gabriel Barre
musical staging and choreography by Patricia Wilcox
musical direction by Ben Stanley

Tom … Adam Wylie
Morgause … Vibecke Dahle
Mordred … Josh Grisetti
Dinadan … Shawn J. Davis
Lionel … Jeremy Stolle
Sagramore … Sal Sabella
Merlyn … Adam Wylie
Arthur … Joseph Dellger
Guenevere … Nili Bassman
Unicorn … Sae La Chin
Owl … Dana Steer
Swan … Kelly Crandall
Nimue … Michelle Liu Coughlin
Page … Adam Wylie
Lancelot … Maxime Alvarez De Toledo
Dap … Dana Steer
Green Boy … Adam Wylie
Pellinore … David Coffee
Lady Sybil … Kelly Crandall
Clarius … Jeff Metzler
Tumbers … Joe Aaron Reid; Vincent Rodriguez III
Ribbon Dancer … Vibecke Dahle
Flag Twirlers … Jeff Metzler; Vincent Rodriguez III
Flag Twirlers … Vibecke Dahle; Kelly Crandall
Orzanna … Vincent Rodriguez III
Lady Anne … Kym Chambers
Morgan Le Fey … Adam Wylie
Tom of Warwick … Adam Wylie

Conductor … Bill Stanley
Clarinet … Peter Cokkinias
Flute; Oboe … Rod Ferland
Trumpt … Jay Daly
Horn … Alyssa Coffey
Trombone … Walter Bostian
Violins … Lucy Pope; Zoia Bologovsky
Cello … Tim Roberts
Bass … Ed Krauss
Percussion … Mark Worgaftik
Keyboard … Robert Rucinski

The North Shore Music Theatre concludes its temporary residence at Boston’s Schubert Theatre with Lerner & Loewe’s CAMELOT which, by happy coincidence, is the very spot where the musical played during its pre-Broadway tryout, forty-five years ago. There were rumors of nudity being added to the production but one scantily-clad mime facing upstage and shielded by semi-darkness may prove disappointing to some; on the other hand, there’s the King Arthur of Joseph Dellger, the most ingratiating leading man to grace a Boston stage since…since…

Every play or musical has its birth pangs; CAMELOT had them in near-Biblical proportions: Adrian, the original costume designer, died of a heart attack. Lyricist/librettist Alan Jay Lerner was driven to distraction by Wife No. 4 and became addicted to amphetamines. Director Moss Hart had a heart attack and was out of commission for weeks. Composer Frederick Loewe clashed with Mr. Lerner over artistic differences and a temporary rift became a permanent one. The musical’s source, T. H. White’s THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, is a rambling satire on the Arthurian legend, riddled with historical inaccuracies and deliberate anachronisms; as a result, out-of-town critics declared that CAMELOT’s score was lovely but its libretto was long-winded and heavy-handed --- the show was no MY FAIR LADY, the last Lerner-Loewe-Hart collaboration. Despite its Broadway production receiving mixed reviews, CAMELOT gradually became a hit thanks to advanced ticket sales that allowed for further tinkering during the run, cast members performing excerpts on The Ed Sullivan Show and its “brief, shining moment” being linked to President Kennedy’s youth-oriented, optimistic administration. CAMELOT does make for a very long evening --- compared to its Act One, you can sit through the nearby MENOPAUSE: THE MUSICAL and still have fifteen minutes to spare --- but the Lerner-Loewe score is still glorious, witty and tender and, if properly handled, Mr. Lerner’s libretto which begins amusingly and ends tragically can still catch up and enfold an audience in its sweeping romance, even without lavish visuals.

North Shore’s production catches and enfolds intermittently due to character interpretation and directorial touches. Instead of a simple Overture, director Gabriel Barre opts for a prologue-mime illuminating Arthur’s background --- a fifth wheel as Arthur explains it all to Guenevere, shortly afterwards --- and he has Mordred observing Act One from a stage box, causing many an audience member to wonder who is that eccentrically-dressed doyenne, up there; meanwhile, an added character named “Tom” wanders throughout without explanation, dressed in modern-day street clothes down to his baseball cap and sneakers (is this a child-reader who has tumbled into Arthur’s enchanted world?). A bit of Act Two dialogue accusing Lancelot of being the Queen’s lover has been lifted from the 1967 film adaptation and the role of Morgan Le Fey is played by an oversized rod puppet, instead. These are mere quibbles when placed beside Mr. Barre’s unbalancing of the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot love triangle. The pivotal role is Guenevere: how she is portrayed determines the nature and depth of her adultery as well as throwing light on the two men who love her. As originally written and as played by the well-scrubbed Julie Andrews, Guenevere is a queen first and woman second; her insisted naughtiness is mere school-girl fancy --- when she falls for Lancelot she is completely at sea, having gotten what she once yearned for but not knowing how to handle it. In his libretto Mr. Lerner implies that Guenevere and Lancelot are chaste lovers; his stage directions call for embracing without kissing (no prizes for guessing who’s the virgin) --- indeed, the whole notion of knighthood’s chivalry was based on the concept of Woman as a sacred vessel --- and had CAMELOT been filmed, say, in 1962, the film would have reflected Mr. Hart’s production. By the time Joshua Logan transferred CAMELOT to the screen, President Kennedy was dead, his "Camelot" had been replaced by President Johnson’s Great Society, and the abruptly changing times now called for franker, more realistic entertainments. Mr. Logan responded by casting Vanessa Redgrave as Guenevere and sexing things up: Ms. Redgrave was on her way to becoming one of the free spirits of her day and her ever-horny Queen calls for a Tom Jones rather than a King Arthur; her well-publicized affair (and subsequent motherhood) with Franco Nero, her Lancelot, only embellished her performance and reputation (on stage, Lancelot comes to Guenevere’s chambers (for the first time); on screen, she comes to his). Mr. Logan’s three-hour film is gorgeous to look at and tedious to sit through as Mr. Lerner based his own screenplay all-too-faithfully on his own libretto and to watch Ms. Redgrave make her bed, lie in it and then feel sorry for herself does not win her much sympathy especially when Arthur is played with such wet-eyed humility by Richard Harris --- CAMELOT thus becomes the tragedy of a well-intentioned king who loves a wench who, in turn, deflowers his best friend and brings ruin to his empire.

Under Mr. Barre’s direction, Nili Bassman’s Guenevere falls somewhere between Ms. Andrews and Ms. Redgrave, i.e. she is spunky yet ladylike and adept in the smooching department --- a storybook princess morphs into a bodice-buster (though Mr. Barre never implies how far the affair has gotten). Ms. Bassman is more relaxed and appealing when displaying her Andrews side and her happiest moment is the Act Two duet “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” where she and Mr. Dellger’s Arthur kick up their heels in a reprise of Act One’s lightheartedness and their sense of fun is contagious. Vocally, Ms. Bassman is better paired with Maxime Alvarez De Toledo’s Lancelot as they both have wobbles in their voices (together, they’re an earthquake); instead of being a shining, startling pillar of virtue, Mr. De Toldeo’s knight is a smug jock played for laughs and is not good-looking enough to justify Lancelot’s behavior nor make it pardonable.

Once he descends from his stage box Josh Grisetti makes a wonderfully twisted Mordred, a medieval woodcut come to life, but his impact is almost sapped by Adam Wylie, an aging juvenile, who is far more weasel-like as the scampering Tom, Merlin and other characters; before the show, Mr. Wylie works the audience with card tricks --- does he know how to disappear? David Coffee, a beloved North Shore reliable, jollies and roars his way through King Pellinore; apart from his Scrooge, shouldn’t North Shore reward him with something more substantial such as THE MOST HAPPY FELLA?

But back to Mr. Dellger. His program notes list only musicals but he can clearly tackle Shakespeare with his ringing Sprechstimme which, in turn, lends fairy-tale authority to his Arthur, and he is good-looking enough for romantic leads (the light-hearted rather than the smoldering kind). His Arthur is a likeable chap, believeable when he protests he has had greatness thrust upon him, and just when you settle in for a merely pleasing performance Mr. Dellger slips into smooth, warm virility for “How to Handle a Woman” and, accompanied by the string section, brings Act One to a moving close with Arthur’s dilemma-monologue where he must put the leader before the man. Should Mr. Dellger choose to remain in the Boston area, he’ll be most welcome, here --- there’s not enough leading men of his caliber to go around for all of our excellent leading ladies.

Patricia Wilcox’s choreography is routine, on the whole, then turns striking and original for Arthur’s invisible imprisonment, executed a capella to evoke the forest primeval; Michael Anania and Jerome Martin’s scene designs are carefully opulent and Pamela Scofield’s period costumes, a bit more so. Jack Mehler’s lighting is the true star with its right, frosty touch for a snowfall at night, Nimue’s seduction of Merlin, staged inside a billowing psychedelic tent, the various dawns over Camelot and the ring of candles around Gwendolyn’s bed, evoking Mr. Wagner’s opera PARSIFAL. Lovely!

CAMELOT will always be associated with the Kennedy administration just as WICKED is said to be the spawn of the current one. Ironically, CAMELOT still proves itself timely not in its optimism but in its defeat: when Mr. Dellger’s Arthur, reluctantly preparing for battle, utters, “It’s the old uncivilized days come back again. Those dreadful days we all tried to put to sleep forever”, those two lines are far more chilling than all of Mordred’s sinister tantrums put together.

"Camelot" (20 September-9 October)
Schubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (978) 232-7200

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide