Making a Case for Camelot

By David A. Rosenberg

If you have to see another “Camelot,” it should be the one currently at Goodspeed Musicals. Under the expert direction of Rob Ruggiero, the plodding Alan Jay Lerner / Frederick Loewe show comes most alive in its dramatic scenes, especially in Act Two. Which is not to say the evening is an out-and-out winner. Despite some gorgeous music and the remnants of an important and moving tale, the musical is laden with meandering scenes and awkward exposition. Still, by cutting down on the pageantry, emphasizing more human-size characterizations, casting skilled singing actors and forging an ensemble, Ruggiero makes a case for the show’s endurance.

The main asset here, as much by necessity as design, is the theater’s intimacy. Spectacle is eschewed in favor of action that often spills into the aisles. Everything is up close, another reason the dramatic scenes work so well.

Even choral numbers that lazily short-hand two all-important plot developments – the jousts where Lancelot (“the greatest knight ever to sit” at the Round Table) shows his prowess and the capture of the almost-adulterous Guenevere – benefit from the auditorium’s small size. Nevertheless, the libretto’s paucity (so surprising for a story with such weighty consequences) is not fully overcome.

Lerner, following tradition, blames the collapse of Camelot and King Arthur’s idealistic dream of a world where right triumphs over might squarely on the fatal attraction between Queen Guenevere and Sir Lancelot. Puritanically, the supposed seduction is never consummated. At Goodspeed, that interruption becomes even more implausible because of book revisions and song placements.

Here, Lancelot’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” is sung not at the beginning of Act Two as it was originally but in the bedchamber scene which is otherwise delicately staged. Coming as it does after Guenevere’s “I Loved You Once in Silence,” Lancelot’s song inordinately lengthens foreplay despite the fact that the would-be lovers must know they’re in danger of being discovered. If they warbled less and hastened to the main course, they would have at least had some pleasure before being caught.

Ruggiero, working with one of Lerner’s children and the revised libretto used in a recent touring version, makes welcome changes. Among them, he eliminates the campy Morgan Le Fey, cuts the dippy “Fie on Goodness” and starts the show, as in the film version, with Arthur’s reminiscing about the whys and whens of his dream’s downfall. It’s an effectively dark beginning, although it spotlights the show’s bipolar swings between cutesy monarchs (“What Do Simple Folk Do?”) and serious concerns about why men fight over arbitrary borders.
Also fascinating is a new scene between Arthur and the evil Mordred in which the latter persuades the king to stay away from the castle for a night as a test of the queen’s loyalty. Thrown into relief is the idea that “Camelot” is close to being a musical tragedy, not comedy. But that would require foreknowledge of unavoidable troubles to come, a step skipped when the clairvoyant Merlyn is summarily removed from the action before he can warn about impending doom.

Bradley Dean is a noble Arthur, angered and frustrated by the duplicity of people he loves. Dean foregoes innocence, instead stressing the king’s tragic downfall. He’s well matched by Erin Davie’s Guenevere, a wise innocent whose chumminess with the court suggests a gullibility she cannot overcome. As Lancelot, Maxime de Toledo adds a great deal of feeling to what could be a stick figure. All three sing beautifully, not incidentally, and leaven their work with self-aware amusement.

Ronn Carroll thankfully doesn’t overdo the bumbling Pellinore, although the excision of his mongrel dog, Horrid, is a pity. Of especial note is Adam Shonkwiler’s subtly evil Mordred, giving the second act its dramatic center.

Conductor Michael O’Flaherty evokes lush sounds from his eight piece orchestra. The show’s medieval look is enhanced by Michael Schweikardt’s formidable scenery, John Lasiter’s opulent lighting and Alejo Vietti’s luxurious costumes.

Whatever the show’s travails, whatever its drawbacks, at least at Goodspeed the final two scenes – one with Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot, the other with Arthur and an eager young boy – are directed by Ruggiero with such sensitivity that they reinforce the show’s basic decency. In an evening of intermittent pleasures, they offer shining moments to take to the heart.

This review first appeared in The Hour, Norwalk, Aug. 13, 2009

 

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