CAMELOT: I Know It Sounds a Bit Bizarre at Westport



Alan Jay Lerner would have been pleased by the Westport Country Playhouse’s audience at last Wednesday’s matinee of CAMELOT.

Lerner often said that when he caught a performance of his musical during its original Broadway run, he could tell if theatergoers would take to the piece if they laughed at a certain lyric that came early in the show.

It’s in “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight,” King Arthur’s introductory song. Because he’s nervous about meeting Guenevere, his assigned bride-to-be, he sings about himself “He wishes he were in Scotland fishing tonight.” If the audience laughed at that one, Lerner thought, it boded well.

And this Connecticut audience laughed appreciably at the lyric en route to enjoying the 1960 hit.

But would Lerner have been as pleased by the changes that David Lee has made to his libretto? First off, Lee has added “Revelers” to the cast – performers dressed in commedia dell’arte costumes who are masked accordingly. Director Mark Lamos has them spinning, twirling and fancifully bowing before establishing the location of each scene.

At first, The Revelers are merely intrusive, and you might wish they’d just go away. In the second act, however, they become a genuine liability, for that’s when CAMELOT becomes very serious. As infidelity, betrayal and sabotage come to the fore, the happy-go-lucky Revelers are decidedly out of place.

Lamos has, however, delivered a speedy production, and in conjunction with Lee’s heavy pruning, they bring in this show at a mere two hours and five minutes. That’s pretty amazing for a musical that’s as famous for its length as its association with the Kennedy Administration.

How much pruning? The book isn’t just cut to the bone, but to the bone marrow. Merlin, Morgan Le Fey and Nimue are nowhere to be seen, so “Follow Me” and “The Persuasion” are nowhere to be heard. The rest of the superb Lerner and Loewe score is there, and much of the time it’s sung pretty well.

And there is that solid and engrossing story. Most musicals have the guy get the girl at the end of the show; here he gets her after Act One, Scene One. Ah, but can he keep her?

On the surface, casting Robert Sean Leonard as Arthur was a good idea, for the mythical character is known as “The Boy King” and Leonard, though suddenly 47, has retained his boyish looks. Alas, his direct and non-nuanced performance is rather one-note, akin to an uninspired photographer who only knows how to point and shoot. But if he’s one note, at least that one note rings true: his Arthur is a common man who was unexpectedly thrust onto the throne and has ever since endeavored to do a good job. However, Leonard neglects the anguish of being husband to a wife who now prefers someone else.

Faring far better is Britney Coleman as Guenevere. This actress understands that lyrics aren’t just made to be sung but felt. She’s thought about every word that Lerner has given her, and means what she says in each impressive and thought-provoking lyric with only one exception: “I Loved You Once in Silence” could have used more gravitas.

Stephen Mark Lukas is much too callow and cartoonish as Lancelot du Lac. The way he overly poses and postures makes him seem more like Gaston in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. When Robert Goulet created Lancelot, the result was a stalwart and courageous knight. Not here.

The first words out of Lancelot’s mouth are the lyrics to “C’est Moi,” in which the Frenchman informs us of what he perceives to be his amazing worth. When Lukas sings, he comes across as a standard American, but afterward, when he’s dealing with dialogue, he’s suddenly speaking with ze French accent.

As the show continues, however, Lukas forgets about the accent and sounds as average as any non-immigrant you hear on the street. Oh, well – it has been said that when a person moves to a foreign place, he does tend to gradually lose his accent. Perhaps that’s what Lamos and Lukas wanted to stress.

So what makes Guenevere fall in love with him? Well, Lancelot does bring a dead man back to life. (Remember, the whole King Arthur “history” is thought to be a good story and a mere legend by most historians.) So now Arthur is about to be cuckolded, which makes nobody happy; Guenevere and Lancelot feel terrible about the devastation they’ll cause their King. (Considering that all three have such deep love for each other, one must wonder what kind of Frenchman Lancelot is in not suggesting a menage a trois.)

Who does make a dynamic impression is Patrick Andrews as Mordred. This is Arthur’s illegitimate son, the result of one passionate night long before Arthur became king. Actors will tell you that a show’s villain is always the best role, and Mordred, who’s intent on destroying everything around him out of simple malevolence, substantiates the theory. Andrews plays the cocksure quality so well that the literal bastard becomes a figurative one, too.

This is a vest-pocket CAMELOT with a mere eight actors and eight musicians. Even Robert Sean Leonard must dress and perform as a Reveler when Arthur isn’t on stage. Of the three Knights of the Round Table, two (Jon-Michael Reese and Mike Evariste) are fine, but Brian Owen is terribly miscast. He’s much too pudgy to be a convincing warrior and his Goth haircut – one half of his head shaved, the other half overflowing with hair – is anachronistic.

Has any musical by a top-notch team (“from the creators of MY FAIR LADY,” the original ads proudly proclaimed) endured as many tryout hardships? The brand-new theater in Toronto wasn’t ready for a new show; director Moss Hart had a heart attack and was hospitalized; Lerner took over but bleeding ulcers hospitalized him, too. The show was still overlong in Boston, and still too long when it opened on Broadway to very mixed reviews.

The only aspects of the 1960 production that all critics approved were the sumptuous sets and costumes. They’re minimal here in Westport, but we see that they don’t have to be lavish. Lerner and Loewe’s work is solid enough to succeed on a bare stage (on which choreographer Connor Gallagher does nicely enough).

The biggest slap in the face that CAMELOT endured came when the 1960-61 Tony Award nominations were announced. Not only was CAMELOT snubbed as one of the season’s Best Musicals, but it was conspicuously omitted, for the committee, which usually puts four musicals in contention, only chose three.

Had there been four, Lerner, Loewe and company could have talked themselves into believing that they’d missed by a whisker. But when a space is left empty, you know that the powers-that-be don’t like you – they REALLY don’t like you.

And what were the three 1960-61 Best Musical nominees? The now-forgotten DO RE MI, the recent revived and reviled IRMA LA DOUCE and the winner: BYE BYE BIRDIE. Sure, it’s a fun show and an extraordinarily good one, too. But would it have spoiled some vast eternal plan if CAMELOT — with its achievements, scope and high goals — had been invited to the Tony party, too?

Don’t let it be forgot that CAMELOT, now shorn of its MY FAIR LADY expectations, stands tall. And considering that the 1967 film of CAMELOT is a disaster, virtually any stage production is always a better option.