Camelot | 3hrs. One intermission. | Vivian Beaumont Theater | 150 W. 65th Street | 212-501-3100
Great leaders with the loftiest ideals may do terrible things for love, and fall. Terrible leaders with no ideals may screw a porn star and pay her to shut up—and they fall, too. The latter sort don’t get pretty musicals written about them, but the former ought to be more stirring than the latest Camelot. In this spare and drab revival by Lincoln Center Theater, with its underwhelming cast and new book crammed with Aaron Sorkin’s shrink-wrap liberal quippery, Camelot calls to us across the decades like Merlyn’s ghost, scolding us for not believing in musical-theater magic.
That’s the main innovation of this joyless, unnecessary revival: debunking the magical elements of Arthurian legend. (Goodness! Next Sorkin will tell us Odysseus never outwitted Polyphemus.) Arthur (Andrew Burnap) says that, as a youth, he pulled the sword Excalibur from an enchanted anvil and stone, proving his divine right as king of England. “I was the ten-thousandth person to try,” Arthur huffs. “How do you explain that?” Guenevere (Philippa Soo) replies coolly: “Nine-thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine people loosened it.”
For a second, you’re impressed by Sorkin’s wit, until irritation sets in. Book writer and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner already brought Arthur down to earth (after T.H. White’s humanizing novel) by recasting him as a neurotic idealist and avatar of postwar American values—rule by law, justice, and civility. Sorkin can’t really improve on this liberal vision, so he gratuitously continues the downward descent of the monarch by humbling him before his smart-aleck queen. There’s bringing your protagonist down to earth, and there’s stuffing him six feet under.
And so it goes for a lot of the misguided elements Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have substituted, almost in spite of the urbane and elegant original. Camelot is the final collaboration between Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, and frankly, it has always been a mushy, overlong affair. The songs are witty and refined—as you’d expect from the makers of My Fair Lady—but the book is sprawling and sentimental, and the score ultimately rather generic (a lot of rueful love ballads and comic villainy). True, Camelot has been a crowd-pleaser since it opened at the dawn of the Kennedy Administration, but that crowd has mostly passed. For it to return as anything but a museum piece would require spectacular design, knockout leads, or a truly daring new book; all are absent on the Vivian Beaumont stage.
When it opened in 1960, Camelot had accumulated multiple miseries unrelated to the tangled passions of King Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot. Director Moss Hart missed the opening because he was recovering from a serious heart attack. Lerner had been ill before rehearsals began and went into the hospital right after it opened. The show ran over four hours in out-of-town tryouts in Toronto. It got down to three by opening night on Broadway (when Hart returned months later, he helped Lerner trim twenty minutes more). The 1967 movie version starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave is rather maudlin, but earnest and sensual and proof that vibrant actors can thrive in this fairytale romance. (If, like me, you stream it before heading to Lincoln Center, you’re in for a disappointing time.)
What Sorkin brings to the new book is not earnestness, but his patented brand of neo-screwball banter and on-the-nose pontificating, with generous scoops of sarcasm. Also: feminism—which in Sorkinese is technically ladyism. He correctly identifies the original Guenevere and Morgan Le Fey as dated and patronizing portraits, but his innovations are too labored and synthetic to seem anything but token. Guenevere first appears in male drag, running away from her imminent betrothal to Arthur, just outside Camelot. Soo pulls off this spunky pixie act with grace and grit, but Sorkin puts snarky lines into Guenevere’s mouth to score cheap meta laughs, which only makes her seem callow. After Arthur croons the title tune, Camelot as utopia where the weather is always fair, the queen-to-be irreverently cracks, “That dumb song, you said it was a metaphor. For what?” At times it seems like Sorkin’s book is competing with the score. As for Morgan (Marilee Talkington), she’s no longer a candy-gobbling fairy but a visionary scientist who has faith in science but none in humanity. Along with Sorkin’s ahistorical notion of Knights of the Round Table reading Plato and Aristotle, this is a nice try, but contrived, incoherent nonsense.
As Arthur, Burnap brings good looks and a decent tenor, and that’s it. An actor ought to have fun as Arthur—be nerdy, be horny, be flamboyant, be heartbroken—but Burnap resembles an average knight promoted beyond his abilities. At least Jordan Donica lets his freak flag fly as Lancelot—a warrior so selfless he’s a narcissist—and his rich, booming voice is burnished steel, but his rectitude barely softens. Both men are completely outshone by Soo, a legitimate star and superior singer, and so the love triangle becomes quite pointless. Dakin Matthews and Taylor Trensch make the quirkiest supporting characters, addled old-timer Pellinore and malignant bastard Mordred, passive and dull. Pellinore lacks pathos and dignity, and Mordred is reconceived, if I got it right, as a sickly victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. Choice after choice, Sorkin and Bartlett seem to be taking the classic both too literally and not seriously enough. After South Pacific, The King and I, and My Fair Lady, this is Sher’s fourth revival of a classic American musical at Lincoln Center Theater, and the least alive.
Amid the bland casting and cold, murky design, there is a warm, beating center: Soo. Her Guenevere is regal, sexy, smart yet fallible. In the first act’s frisky ode to pastoral hedonism, “The Lusty Month of May,” Soo hitches up her peasant-style skirt and jigs with abandon, pumping desperately needed excitement and humanity into the room. You believe two powerful men could fall for Guenevere, to the ruination of the Round Table, chivalry, and perhaps England itself. But it would take a magic potion for her to look twice at either of them.