Also see Richard's review of The Drowsy Chaperone
Camelot is one of those musicals best characterized as "great score, shame about the book." The original cast album from the first Broadway production in 1960 was the best-selling LP in the United States for over a year, and it's still easy to see why: the music by Frederic Loewe and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner express all the emotions and moods which somehow got left out of Lerner's book, which by comparison is a dutiful slog through a CliffsNotes® version of T.H. White's "The Once and Future King."
But it's easier to forget about cardboard characters and the complete absence of psychological verisimilitude when you have songs like "Camelot," "What Do the Simple Folk Do?"and "Fie on Goodness!" to look forward to. And this is an old-fashioned musical, so the hit tunes get reprised: I lost track of how many times we heard "Camelot" but that's not a complaint and they sure don't write them like that any more. The rich score shows off the Muny orchestra to best advantage as well.
The story begins with the first meeting of Arthur (Jeff McCarthy) hiding in a tree to get a peek at his bride, Guenevere (Jenny Powers). His tutor Merlyn (Joneal Joplin, an outstanding stage presence as always, and one who is seen much too briefly in this production) warns him it's time to grow up. He's not kidding: before long Merlyn is drawn off the the cave of Nimue for his eternal sleep and Arthur is married to Guenevere.
Pick up five years later: Arthur hatches the idea for the Round Table, where all knights would be equal and would only do good. Lancelot (Lewis Cleale, the strongest voice on stage, although he had some problems with his upper range) arrives and loses no time informing everyone of his virtues: as with some contemporary politicians, the guy who talks the best moral game turns out to be the one least interested in obeying his own prescriptions in life. King Pellinore (Fred Applegate) brings a touch of humor to the court as a middle-aged friend of Arthur's, and there's a jousting match which establishes Lancelot's superiority in at least that knightly occupation. He also declares his love for Guenevere, setting up the conflict for the second act.
Things pick up in act two with the arrival of Mordred (Allen E. Read), Arthur's illegitimate son who lives up to the reputation of such offspring by causing as much trouble as possible to those of more favored birth. He manages to stir up the knights and tempts Lancelot and Guenevere into doing what they've been thinking about, then bursts in to catch them in the act. This is followed by a sort of sung narration and pantomime of Guenevere's trial, condemnation to death, and rescue by Lancelot, complete with strobe lights and a black-robed chorus: it looks preposterous today and I wonder if there was there ever a time when it worked on stage. But no fear, a happy ending is just around the corner, forced on the story by the arrival of a young man named Tom of Warwick (Christian Probst) who embodies all the idealism Arthur once had for his Round Table. One more reprise of "Camelot" and it's time for curtain calls.
Camelot is so determinedly old-fashioned that the peculiarities of the Muny actually play to its advantage. The sliding flats allow for quick scene changes (the show is two and a half hours as it is) and don't look out of place in a show in which the characters themselves are determinedly two-dimensional. The large stage has plenty of room for several impressive scenes of pageantry, and the presentational nature of the text means that it doesn't seem odd for a single character to stand before a painted flat and sing directly to the audience. All in all, Camelot works much better than I expected, and produced a more satisfying evening at the Muny than have productions of some better-written shows.
Camelot continues at the Muny in Forest Park through August 2. Ticket information is available from the Muny Box Office (314-361-1900), from Metrotix (314-534-1111) and from the muny web page www.muny.org. Next up at the Muny is Hairspray, which will run August 3-9.