Camelot – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

When Lerner and Loewe’s fantasy musical Camelot first opened, reviews were mixed, audiences were initially indifferent, and the whole thing ran too long. In fact, during an out-of-town tryout, what was supposed to last two hours forty minutes ended up being four hours and thirty minutes. Drastic cuts were made; a few songs, good ones, were dropped; Lerner was hospitalized, and director Moss Hart suffered a heart attack. Considering the difficulties and the behind-the scenes dramas – Lerner’s wife left him – it’s amazing the show ever opened. But after much editing, Camelot was finally ready for Broadway. Surprisingly, reviews remained mixed.

Yet, since those problematic months, after the help of some national publicity on The Ed Sullivan Show, ticket sales suddenly boomed, the show won four Tony Awards, the cast album was a big seller, plus in 1967 a lavish but so-so movie was made. After a few revivals and several national tours – the last tour with Lou Diamond Phillips as King Arthur ran for a week in the valley at Gammage in 2008 – plus countless regional productions, Arizona Broadway Theatre begins the year in Peoria with a new, colorfully staged production of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, and what a handsome looking production it proves to be.

After an outstanding trumpet dominating Overture under Josh D. Smith’s musical direction, from the moment the curtain rises, Kara Thomson’s hugely effective scenic design, beautifully lit by Jesse Portillo, catches the eye from beginning to the end, opening with the sight of snow falling lightly over the grounds of the English countryside that we’ll get to know as Camelot. For followers of history, several have speculated that Camelot was probably in Cornwall, but considering there is no historical proof of there ever being a King Arthur or any Knights of the Round Table (despite the claims of a few amateur historians) it could really take place anywhere in England. Robin L. McGee’s excellent period costumes add to the overall effect of a fictional, historical past.

If you recall the Walt Disney animated feature, The Sword in the Stone, think of that as Camelot’s prequel. The early story of the boy Arthur and the magical legend of how he became King of England plus the story of Camelot both come from the same, sprawling T.H. White novel, The Once and Future King. Throughout the musical, the now adult Arthur (Matthew C. Thompson) continually refers to events that you may remember in that 1963 animated classic, including a well-told and impassioned account of how he took the sword from the stone as he relates the event to Guenevere (Stephanie Easterday).

Thompson possesses neither the robust power of Broadway’s original Arthur, Richard Burton, nor the overall presence of the film’s Arthur, Richard Harris, yet he’s closer in look and sound of what we think the real character would probably be, given what know of the boy Wart as described in the book and as he’s portrayed in the Disney feature. That boyish charm of a young man from humble, countryside beginnings who finds himself suddenly a king at such an early age is nicely captured by Thompson’s appearance and enthusiastic manner; he’s just as you would imagine Arthur would be, though given his background and early upbringing, he probably wouldn’t have sounded quite as posh.

Like the production itself, Easterday is a handsome looking Guenevere, or Genny as Arthur often calls her, with a singing voice to match, something that’s immediately evident from the opening notes of her character’s first song, The Simple Joys of Maidenhood. She’s less the somewhat sly, conniving Genny as the film’s Vanessa Redgrave played her and more in line with Broadway’s Julie Andrews, complete with a clipped, upper class English accent that sounds as though she might have been the privileged head-girl from either Oxford or Cambridge.

Completing the love triangle of leads is Jamie Parnell as the dutiful French knight, Lancelot. His powerful renditions of C’est Moi and If Ever I Would Leave You are quite superb. Those songs made a star out of Robert Goulet in 1960, and on the evidence of his Saturday evening performance and the enthusiastic reception of the audience, Parnell is equal to the task. With just a slight hint of French in his delivery, his Lancelot is both strong and honorable. He manages to underline the fact that though he falls for another man’s wife, what happens between Lancelot, Arthur, and Guenevere are no one’s fault; the affairs of the heart and the magnet pull of an attraction for another are too strong, even for a devout character like Lancelot.

Support is good throughout, particularly from Michael Weaver who doubles as a befuddled Merlin as he fades and loses his memory, and fun as the eccentric Pellinore played as if Robert Coote had returned to the stage; Renee Kathleen Koher, who also doubles, is in fine voice, here as Nimue and Morgan Le Fey; and solid work from the three knights, Sir Sagamore (Joe McHatten), Sir Lionel (Nicholas Kuhn) and Sir Dinadan (Steven Russell), though Russell’s attempt at speaking lines with a Scottish brogue proves more comical than probably intended; he fights a battle with Lancelot and his accent, and loses at both.

What’s obvious in Alan Jay Lerner’s script is that the problems of 1960 and all the changes and editing that were done to make it work still remain. The first half, full of great songs and set pieces, is surprisingly long, and the second half, though shorter, never fully satisfies. Neither does the closing moment that is intended to be inspirational but has never theatrically worked. The villainous character of Mordred takes center stage, and while Stephen Hohendorf makes the jealous, illegitimate child of Arthur effectively evil, by portraying the character as such a slimy, fey, brat, he oversteps into camp in a way the character was never meant to be.

But the strength of Camelot is and always will be the score. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the actors were cast for their singing voices first, such is the power and clarity of the cast – leads and support. Little wonder that the original cast album lasted 60 weeks in the album charts. Director James Rio juggles all the elements, marries them together, and delivers a hugely entertaining piece of musical theatre. The problems with Lerner’s book will always be there, but, with the exception of a few above-mentioned reservations, there is little wrong with ABT’s production.

Pictures by Scott Samplin

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