Before I start my review, I feel it is only fair to mention that Camelot has never been one of my favorite musicals, and I find it to be a very frustrating show. I am a big fan of the Arthurian legends, and have enjoyed them in every format, from Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur to Mary Stewart's Merlin series, even to DC Comics' Camelot 3000. But I have never been able to get through T. H. White's The Once and Future King, which is the source for Camelot, finding it bloodless and tedious. My tastes run more towards Excaliber than Disney's The Sword in the Stone, which is also based on The Once and Future King and is, in effect, a prequel to Camelot.
That being said, I enjoyed the production at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre more than I imagined I would, mainly due to a strong cast and fast paced direction. The strength of Camelot has always been found in its songs and, for the most part, the cast did not disappoint. Richard White, who originated the part of the Phantom in Maury Yeston's Phantom! made a near perfect Lancelot. Best known, perhaps, as the voice of Gaston in the film version of Beauty and the Beast, his Lancelot bore more than a passing resemblance to the animated blowhard. His "C'est Moi" was a perfect study in narcissism, while retaining a core of humanity and liability.
In fact, all the actors were to a person superb at grounding the stylized, over-the-top, cartoon-esque qualities of their characters with at least a modicum of humanity. Lauri Landry, who recently left The Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway, was a charming Guenevere, and deftly handled the transition from flighty, scared, young bride to commanding queen and ruler (a transition which occurs off-stage during the five years that pass between her scenes). Her rendition of "I Loved You Once in Silence," perhaps the most beautiful and poignant song ever written by Lerner and Loewe, was exquisite and should be recorded. Brian Lane Green, last seen as Jojo in The Life, made the most of the thankless character Mordred. His superb tenor effortlessly soared through "The Seven Deadly Virtues," while he reveled in every comic moment in what can be one of the most tedious of songs. He never resorted to over-the-top camp (which is an easy trap to fall into, since Mordred's aunt, is after all Morgan le Fey), all the while being the sinister villain you enjoy rooting against.
The highlight of the show was James Valentine's portrayals of Merlin and Pellinore. A long-time veteran of Camelot, having been in the recent Robert Goulet revival as well as productions with Richard Burton and Richard Harris, watching him perform was like seeing Carol Channing in the recent revival of Hello Dolly. Both actors have performed their roles thousands of times, and every nuance and line is ingrained in them body and soul. Yet, they retain a freshness and a joy which is a delight to watch.
For all my enjoyment, Camelot has always had two problems for me, both of which are evident in this production. First and foremost is the book which is overly long, stylized, and strangely bloodless. It really is a cartoon, much like Disney's The Sword in the Stone, as the characters' passions, emotions and episodes of violence and villainy are restrained and never allowed to fully come to fruition. This production plays on the cartoon aspects of the show with a beautiful set by Michael Anania which recalls Disney's Sleeping Beauty in its colors and grand style. The direction by Norb Joerder is fast paced, and he has made many cuts and alterations in the show, most of them for the better.
The second problem for me, however, has always been the character of Arthur, and his drawbacks have never been more apparent than in this production. Arthur has always struck me as belonging in a play other than Camelot. While all the other characters have shallow emotions and reactions, he is almost a cross between a Chekhov and a Woody Allen character; he is plagued by self-doubts and realizations that the two people he loves the most are betraying him in thought, if not in deed. He is also trying to become a new species of ruler, one that is hoping to change the order of his time from bloody violence to civilized chivalry. Noel Harrison, son of the late Rex Harrison, does a wonderful job portraying the boy-king who never grew into his crown, and is overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control. His Arthur is a balding, middle-aged monarch who would be a woman's best friend and source of comfort, but never inspire the passions that a man like Lancelot would. Unfortunately, his Arthur is also a monarch that you can never envision leading troops or being the charismatic force needed to change an era. Throughout the show, I kept thinking that any Shakespearean ruler would make short work of such a king and his existential dilemmas.
But overall, it was a surprisingly entertaining show and the best production of Camelot I have seen. Camelot runs through March 7, 1999 in Seattle. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 206-292-ARTS or visit the Fifth Avenue Theatre's box office at 1308 - 5th Avenue in Seattle.