A Shining Moment Known as Camelot
Lerner and Loewe’s final collaboration, Camelot, is a long, fascinating and complicated musical with a history that can be properly described by the same adjectives. So there’s a lot to say about it and its current production at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
Thus, it is important for me to begin by saying that this is a rich and rewarding production with a superlative lead performance that no one who enjoys American musical theatre will want to miss. As it should prove to be a very difficult ticket before it ends its run on May 18, it would be prudent to order your tickets immediately.
Essentially, this is a remounting of the excellent 1991 Paper Mill production of Camelot with improvements. After last season’s scenically reduced and truncated production of My Fair Lady, I approached this production with some trepidation. Instead, I found myself transported back to the days when Paper Mill consistently produced the highest level of musical theatre one could imagine. As in 1991, we can be grateful that director Robert Johanson has restored several quite superior songs which were cut shortly after the Broadway opening in order to reduce that production's unwieldy three and a half hour running time. Johanson has done so while preserving the complexity and intellectual sophistication of Alan Jay Lerner’s book, and keeping the length of the performance to a manageable three hours.
Camelot is an imperfect work stuffed with superior materials struggling to coalesce into a cohesive and satisfying musical. Enough plot to easily fill the entire second act is stuffed into one song ("Guenevere") at its end. The libretto was repeatedly tinkered with by Lerner until his death. I have read that in his final version the story is played out in flashback as Arthur thinks of his past while awaiting his final battle with Mordred. Enter Robert Johanson. I have no idea from which script(s) he has assembled the Paper Mill version. However, he has a notable talent for shaping rich, imperfect musicals for which there exists an overabundance of material by integrating the best elements into a satisfying whole. Yes, there is an awful lot to digest here - Camelot is both a lush romantic fairy tale and an intellectual treatise on human weakness, morality and the imperfectability of man – and there will always be some heaviness present. However, to reduce any of these elements or the Lerner-Loewe score would deplete the richness and value of the whole. To quote a Lerner line from the script, "perfection is not greatness, and greatness is not perfection." This Paper Mill Camelot is not perfect, but it does make the best case possible for this musical’s greatness that we are ever likely to see.
Brent Barrett and Glory Crampton
So, just how does the present production improve on the 1991 mounting? Well, Paper Mill has been fortunate to be able to cast the exceptional Brent Barrett as King Arthur. I do not think that any other of the leading men of today’s musical theatre would be as ideal in the role, or could improve upon his performance. He retains enough boyishness to be convincing in the first scene when, with fear and trepidation, he awaits and then meets the arriving Guenevere, and has the strength and acting skills to effectively convey the King’s maturation. Barrett’s singing is always a joy. He effortlessly and mellifluously caresses the beautiful Frederick Loewe notes, smoothly integrating the portions where the writing calls for more speech-like tones. He delivers Lerner’s witty and brilliant dialogue (“to be right and lose couldn’t be right”) with ease and conviction. Both he and Glory Crampton as Guenevere beautifully convey the affection which makes their characters' marriage feasible, while displaying the lack of passion which undermines their relationship.
On occasion, I mistakenly missed the stentorian strength which Richard Burton displayed in creating the role of King Arthur. After all, his interpretation is always with us on the original cast recording. However, this interpretation would be false to the play. After all, in this telling, the collapse of Camelot is essentially the result of Arthur’s weakness and irresolution. Even as the final curtain falls, Arthur has attained acceptance, not strength or decisiveness.
Glory Crampton outdoes herself here. She displays a verve and maturity which have not been evident in her earlier work. As the self absorbed, dissatisfied Guenevere, she displays appropriate naughty sexuality in her early scenes. She interests us as a sexual creature while her behavior elicits our disapproval. In her last scene, she is moving and convincing in her mature regret for her behavior. It is a special moment when she makes Arthur concentrate on her and plaintively urges him to “please see what I want you to see.” Although her voice sounded strained on occasion, for the most part, her vocalizations are lovely, climaxing in a particularly beautiful “I Loved You Once in Silence.”
Matt Bogart threatens to dominate the production when he opens with a rich, gorgeous, and impishly humorous “C’est Moi.” Unfortunately, upon conclusion of the song, an overly broad comedic interpretation of Lancelot combined with a similarly overly broad French accent immediately undermines his work and the sexual attractiveness which Lancelot must have to convincingly turn Guenevere’s head. Hopefully, he will tone down these elements of his performance and improve as he gets more performances under his belt.
As Arthur’s wicked son Mordred (who conspires to destroy the Round Table), Barrett Foa is, if anything, too good. Has there ever been as evil and repulsive an interpretation of this role? This is a more major role than I had remembered (most likely because Mordred does not appear until the second act), and Foa has a major and difficult singing role. His voice, clarity and passionate interpretation of the lyrics are outstanding. This is a performance to remember.
The venerable, reliable and delightful veteran George S. Irving plays the dual roles of Merlyn and Pellinore. Merlyn is seduced from earth by a spirit at the end of the first scene, and the woeful Pellinore replaces Merlyn as Arthur’s companion without his predecessor’s magical powers. Unless there is a further connection between them that is not apparent, I would have preferred for Irving to limit his efforts to his delightful and ultimately moving interpretation of Pellinore. Irving is simply too strong a stage personality for these dual roles.
Christopher Carl, Matt Stokes and Abe Reybold are especially fine as featured knights, and Tara Lynne Wills sings fetchingly as Morgan LeFey.
Fritz Loewe has provided a cornucopia of gorgeous romantic melodies (“If Ever I Would Leave You”), bright lyrical idyllic tunes (“The Lusty Month of May”), and strong, appropriate accompaniments to Lerner’s brilliantly humorous and/or contemplative lyrics (“Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” “How to Handle a Woman” ). And I am only scratching the surface. Lerner, one of the very greatest American theatre lyricists, is in superb form. A lyric that particularly delights my ear is his description of the month of May as “the time for every frivolous whim, proper or im”, and has any other lyricist ever used the word “unwinceable”? I’m not certain if there was such a word before Lerner, but as used by him it makes perfect sense.
Amazingly, Lerner’s book (very likely echoing the T. H. White novel on which it is based) speaks strongly to today’s concerns. The Knights of the Round Table are gathered together to fight evil. The Round Table is destroyed because of the weaknesses of human nature and the pure evil of some. Arthur’s philosophy in the founding of the Round Table is “not might is right, but might for right,” and he envisions that his knights will be “questing for right and honor and peace and justice.”
Michael Anania has designed his sets around a raked large round stone floor which symbolically suggests the Round Table. While the sets for the Broadway production were among the heaviest and most elaborate that I have ever seen, Anania succeeds beyond expectation in reproducing their sense of grandeur. As it was in 1991, the physical production is a real beauty. You’ll love the castle, and the pastel pallet is appropriate and fetching. I only wish that Paper Mill had used Anania’s gorgeous artwork, employing elements of his stage design, that adorned the program for the earlier production. I will extend my purview to note that the current program cover art is dreary.
Thom Heyer’s costumes and F. Mitchell Dana’s lighting design nicely complement the production visually. Tom Helm’s musical direction is impeccable.
Although it was already outstanding, it seems that director Johanson has successfully rethought parts of his earlier staging. I was particularly impressed by the improved quality of the scene in which "Fie on Goodness" is sung. It is now one of the production's many highlights. In his earlier staging of Camelot, Johanson increased his complement of knights by dressing members of the female ensemble as knights. Now, the staging is robustly masculine and the knights project a strong carnal side which is quite powerful and unexpected. Thus, rather than just repeating an earlier success, Johansen has rethought and freshened his work. However, less can be more, and the scene would be just as carnal and appreciably less vulgar if a couple of the hand gestures were toned down or eliminated.
There are other unexpected pleasures here. There is a beautiful verse leading into "How To Handle a Woman" that is not on the recording and that I could not recall that musically echoes some strains from the title song of Gigi. Also included is “The Joust,” which is similar in its concept to "Ascot Gavotte," but entirely different in tone.
It has been reported that Glenn Casale, whose claim to fame is the Cathy Rigby production of Peter Pan, is planning to revive Camelot on Broadway in 2004, with plans to “improve” it. He says that Guenevere can’t be portrayed as she was in the past (based on the production at hand, I cannot tell why not); he wants to repair the defect of the absence of a full Guenevere/Lancelot duet (it is important to the plot that there not be one as, although tempted, Guenevere never actually yields to her desire); and he intends to push the time back to 500 AD (pre-medieval), so that it will be rougher and rawer, and “get some circus ideas into it.” (Be afraid, very afraid.)
What I am trying to say is that you had better get over to Millburn, New Jersey, and see Camelot now. A Camelot of the quality of the current Paper Mill production may not be available in the foreseeable future. Camelot. Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Music by Frederick Loewe. Based on “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White. Director/Choreographer: Robert Johanson. Scenic Design: Michael Anania. Music Director: Tom Helm.
Brent Barrett (Arthur); Matt Bogart (Lancelot); Glory Crampton (Guenevere); Barrett Foa (Mordred); George S. Irving (Merlin/Pellinore) and Jacquelyn Baker, Christy Boardman, Tara Lynne Khaler, Diane Veronica Phelan, Catherine Walker, Jennifer Hope Wills; Enrique Acevedo, Bernie Blanks, Paul Canaan, Christopher Carl, Michael Gerhart, Greg Mills, Michael Butler Minarik, Abe Reybold, Daniel Spiotta, Matt Stokes, Jeff Stone, Matthew K. Yoder and Nicholas Druzbanski, Garrett Gallinot, Gus Gallinot, David Jastrab, Benjamin Rosenbach, Javier Woodard.
Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J. 07041
Performances through May 18, 2003 – Wed. – Sat. 8 P.M. / Thurs. 2 P.M. / Sat. 2:30 P.M. / Sun. 2 P.M. & 7:30 P.M./ (No perfs. Easter Sunday (4/20); Sun Eve. 5/18; Extra Perf: Tues. 4/15 – 8 P.M. Tickets - $67 - $30 by telephone at the Paper Mill Box Office 973-376-4343 On the web at www.papermill.org.