The producers of the current national tour of Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot” probably thought that they had come upon a great idea to generate interest in their production. Why not redo the show in the style of those popular binge-worthy series on cable, such as “Game of Thrones” or “Outlander,” cast the leading parts with well-toned hunky men, throw in some clanging sword fights and let the underlying romance take its course.
After catching the tour during on its opening night (April 21) at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, one can see that while the idea may have sounded good on paper, it didn’t quite work out so well on stage. Oh yes, the production tried. The musical opens with the ritual sounding beat of heavy drums getting ready for war, a motif that will be used several times throughout the show. Kevin Depinet’s set includes a Calder-like assemblage of thick metal slats that rise and bend almost to the top of the proscenium. Mike Baldassari’s lighting is dark and jarring with occasional explosions of brightness. And Paul Tazewell’s costumes echo back to a period when England was wilder and less civilized, though he possibly could have made them just a little more “Braveheart” and less “Prince Valiant.”
But amid Frederick Loewe’s 50’s style melodies and Alan Jay Lerner’s generally sophisticated lyrics and rhymes, the pagan warrior concept just doesn’t quite work. After all, there remains the book at the heart of the musical, essentially a love story between King Arthur and his betrothed Guenevere and her subsequent falling in love with the Round Table’s Sir Lancelot after Arthur spends so much time out in the field, doing battle with the other tribes of England in order to unite the country under a single banner. If you stick to the book, Arthur must initially be depicted as a somewhat naïve, virginal boy-man designated by fate to rule (he pulled that sword out of the stone as a teenager, remember), so we never see him grow into a John Snow or William Wallace kind of ruthless warrior. This Arthur is just too nice and noble and sophisticated a guy. And his followers, who will eventually serve as Knights of the Round Table, are merely muscular guys who can sing really well, but who certainly don’t exhibit any qualities associated with barbarians (even in their later number, “Fie on Goodness,” when they jump around and pretend to threaten each other in the nicest possible way).
There’s also the problem of the scope of the production. Outside of the five principals, there’s just an ensemble of nine people, five men and four women. (The ensemble would have contained six men, but member Troy Bruchwalski was pressed into service on the night this reviewer caught the show to fill in for Adam Grabau who was not able to perform the leading role of King Arthur.) That’s not that large of an ensemble to play combatting armies let alone a single royal retinue. In addition, there’s no choreographer credited to the show and as a result hardly any dancing, which is sorely missed even though the show doesn’t present a lot of opportunities for extended production numbers.
As a result, we have a “Camelot” that is remarkably stagnant. There are not great set changes on stage, as the large metal sculpture remains in place on stage left for the entire show, only occasionally pressed into service to represent a tree or a larger forest. On stage right, a curtain may fly down to designate a different room with a few scattered pieces of furniture brought in to supply additional visual cues. The direction is credited to Michael McFadden who is also the co-founder and Artistic Director of Phoenix Entertainment, which just happens to be the Producer of this tour.
McFadden may be relying on the Lerner and Loewe score to “sell” the show, but even though “Camelot” has garnered significant name recognition since it opened in the early 1960’s and is regarded by many as a much beloved musical, it really is a troubled. Two of the major numbers which cover significant events in the show merely describe action, rather than depict the action directly. So the chorus essentially sings to audience about what is happening on the jousting field in Act One, and then describes Lancelot’s derring-do as he attempts to rescue his beloved Guenevere toward the end of the second act. Yes, we may see the result of the near-fatal joust in question, or see stage lights representing the fire burning beneath the traitorous Guenevere, but the thundering horses, the smiting of Arthur’s defensive forces and just how harrowing the rescue of the Queen is are left to the imagination. That seems unnecessarily stultifying in this day and age of special stage effects and elaborate projections that can accomplish so much more in the contemporary musical.
Bruchwalski acquits himself pretty well stepping in as Arthur. He does depict the King’s youth adequately and even better allows us to see him age as the years pass in Arthur’s reign. He does his without growing a beard or even going grey, which was quite impressive. It’s hard to tell if he is a great singer, as he essentially talks his way through many of the songs, sort of the way that Richard Burton did on Broadway. But even as the talks in the appropriate rhythms, he doesn’t seem quite on key with the orchestra. He creates quite a sympathetic figure, so it is somewhat difficult to catch Guenevere’s growing distance from him.
Mary McNulty as Gwen, as the Queen is nicknamed, does possess a lovely singing voice, but does she have to vocalize and enunciate just as Julie Andrews did on the cast album? Maybe the producers and directors think that is what the audience wants, but it comes off as more imitation than sincerity. She doesn’t show us the Queen’s boredom and frustration, but she sure does capture her “stop in her tracks” attraction to Sir Lancelot when he wanders in from France. I guess the deer in the headlights look is meant to indicate love at first sight.
Tim Rogan fares a little better as Lancelot, as he is able to convey the preening, self-absorbed character of the young French noble possessed of blond good looks. It is actually easy to see the very serious bromance develop between the King and his Gallic admirer as they embrace much more frequently than either seems to do with the Queen. Sometimes you wonder when Lancelot has had time to notice the Queen at all, especially when he climbs through that metal monstrosity to get to her bedroom. Rogan does possess a quality singing voice that does justice to “If Only I Would Leave You,” perhaps the most famous contribution to the Great American Songbook to emerge from this score. Of course, stopping to sing this song does allow the King’s guard to discover Lancelot and Gwen together leading to the dramatic events that propel the latter portion of the show.
I guess I should mention Kasidy Devlin’s portrayal of Mordred, the sudden villain of the piece who enters in the midst of Act Two and in a toss off line that many in the audience missed (I heard many spouses having to explain this to their partners) reveals that he is Arthur’s illegitimate son from an enchanted spell cast by his obviously evil mother, Morgana. Mordred has indeed inherited all of this mother’s bad points and he is jealous of hell at all the so-called privilege that Arthur and Gwen have enjoyed. Devlin, an appropriate name obviously, plays him as a laughing, screeching, bouncing around, manipulative villain, somewhat of a cross between Puck and, because of his size, Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones.” Devlin, when he’s not laughing or cackling, even manages to deliver his lines in the same droll manner as Dinklage does in his role as Tyrion Lannister.
It is Mark Poppleton who comes off the best as the aging King Pellinore who becomes one of the first tribal monarchs to swear his loyalty to Arthur and who serves as a defacto mentor to the young king, even though Pellinore can come off as occasionally foolish as well. Poppleton shows that Pellinore, as his senses and wisdom dwindle as he ages, means well and wants to see Arthur succeed, just as Poppleton does in his earlier role as Merlin, the magician who is responsible for assisting the young King but who, in a sudden turn of events based upon an old prediction, must be carried off and hidden in a cave for several hundred years by the supernatural nymph Nimue. At least the off stage female ensemble gets to sing a few bars of the lovely “Follow Me.”
The ensemble are called to play any variety of characters throughout the show, so they don’t really have a chance to develop characterizations for any one of them, but the five (or six, depending on the evening) men show that they can hold swords and walk at the same time, and can harmonize pretty well. So can the four members of the female ensemble, who can also display furtive looks and an occasional lusty smile if necessary.
I think there was a good idea associated with this show, but unfortunately it wasn’t thought through clearly enough or extended throughout the work. But if you like the music and want to hear “If Ever I Would Leave You” sung outside of Las Vegas, then a trip to “Camelot” just might be in your cards.
“Camalot” plays through the weekend at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. For information and tickets, contact the Bushnell Box Office at 860.987.9500 or visit their website at www.bushnell.org.