The music scene has been more interesting lately than the movies, and that’s a fact. The hot ticket last week (at $250 a throw) was the sold-out concert production of Camelot with the New York Philharmonic, which was broadcast live from Lincoln Center on PBS. This week’s don’t-miss “it could only happen in New York” happening is Sunday afternoon, with a one-performance world premiere of Pamela’s First Musical, by Cy Coleman, Wendy Wasserstein and David Zippel, staged at Town Hall as a benefit for Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS, with Don Sebesky orchestrations, Graciela Daniele directing, and starring Donna Murphy, Tommy Tune,
More about Camelot: Less luminous than its reputation, this famous musical by Lerner and Loewe has survived mainly through its songs, but since the original production in 1960, with Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and a young Robert Goulet, it has not only gathered moss but grown a few lichens. A royal wedding, a beautiful queen, a beloved king, a storybook knight and a perfect kingdom, all brought to ashes by jealousy, adultery, witchcraft and sex! Here is surely the unbeatable mix for a legendary musical. Unfortunately, Camelot has not aged as well as vintage Madeira, but the concert version was still something of a heady event, and whenever opera star Nathan Gunn was onstage the excitement neared the status of a mob riot.
The weird directorial flourishes by Lonny Price seemed as old as Merlyn (Stacey Keach, looking like Father Christmas), with a massive gold crown hanging over the stage; a round table that rose from the floor; movable boxes that suggested beds, thrones and forest landscapes; and dancing nymphs in tank tops, tuxedos, kilts and fencing armor, blending antique ideas with New World vision. With the orchestra at the rear of the stage and no television monitors, the disappointing Dublin-born Gabriel Byrne was unable to see the conductor, talking his way through “How To Handle a Woman” as if on cue from Richard Burton, in a manner that only made his inability to carry a tune seem even more sluggish than necessary. But in all fairness, how could he shine on the same stage with Nathan Gunn? After “If Ever I Would Leave You,” which brought the capacity 2,752-seat Avery Fisher Hall audience to a screaming ovation that stopped the show for five performances in a row, Mr. Byrne never really regained his equilibrium. Marin Mazzie was a golden-throated Guenevere (her vocal articulation remains clear as Baccarat crystal), but there was never any question whom she would choose between a sexy, soaring Sir Lancelot and a sweet but wimpy King Arthur. (In the end, she chose the convent.) The less said the better about Fran Drescher, camping it up as wicked sorceress Morgan le Fay like the Nanny playing a Turkish belly dancer while clutching a giant Hershey bar.
Never mind. The Philharmonic never sounded fuller or richer, the score is still gorgeous, and the energy and charm of Nathan Gunn was so overwhelming you could forgive everything loopy that surrounded it. This was a Camelot (and a production of Camelot) that was clearly claimed and ruled by this dynamic, mesmerizing baritone, in a triumphant performance that transported Lancelot into the most dashing knight who ever turned a Round Table upside down. He has been praised throughout the world in a panoramic field of dramatic operas ranging from The Magic Flute and The Barber of Seville to Billy Budd and An American Tragedy, so his acting chops come as no revelation, but now Mr. Gunn has turned his first Broadway-style career crossover into a titanic triumph, capturing every aspect of Lancelot’s personality—pompus, hilariously vain and obsessively self-worshipping on “C’est Moi”; chivalrous and sexy in the Queen’s arms; valiant with a sword; growing into tenderness and humility after betraying the king he loves more than his own ego—with a virile and colorful stage presence, a convincing French accent and a lyrical voice rich in depth and tone. Unless the music world has given up the search for another Alfred Drake, someone is busily creating a new Broadway musical just for him, as we speak. Camelot sometimes meandered, but Nathan Gunn was unforgettable.