By David A. Rosenberg
Who’s that kid in jammies? What do all those “Revelers” represent? Do Guenevere and Lancelot ever actually get it on?
Cutting down “Camelot,” the 1960 extravaganza by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music), as seen at the Westport Country Playhouse, both adds and subtracts its virtues. Lost is the resplendent pageantry, gained is intimacy.
Many shows have benefited from re-imagined productions. Yet the libretto of “Camelot,” when all but shorn of its complexities, is weak and lacking in sustenance. The show’s paucity extends to its two-dimensional characters. Although it references the Round Table and King Arthur’s quest for justice and peace, this version is about a husband-wife-lover triangle and damn the royal idealism. For all its exertion, the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot folderol turns out to be a thin, sexless romance: the work is no longer about how an illicit affair brings down Round Table idealism.
Luckily, the re-imagined libretto by David Lee makes room for the show’s lovely score, from “If Ever I Would Leave You” to “How to Handle a Woman” to the title song, forever associated with John F. Kennedy’s optimistic but doomed presidency.
Coming on the heels of the Lerner-Loewe 1956 megahit “My Fair Lady,” hopes were high for “Camelot,” which is based on T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King.” In all probability, nothing short of a miracle would have even come close to the earlier show. “Camelot” critics slammed the libretto but praised the dazzling physical production.
At Westport, concentration is on the work’s storybook elements and its artificiality, as when the pajama-wearing kid mimes a joust with toy horses and knights, while the adult knights pretend to thrust and parry. Stylistically, the result is distancing.
Eliminating Morgan Le Fay and Merlyn effectively kills the show’s stab at contrasting rational civilization with primitive hocus-pocus. Further, the mischief-making Mordred (a fine Patrick Andrews) is more a mean and petulant kid than a conniving pretender to the throne.
As Arthur, Tony-winning Robert Sean Leonard effectively talk-sings his songs, integrating them into the character instead of treating them like independent showcases. Excellent actor that he is, he makes the king into a shy, self-effacing monarch, his reticence casting doubts on his leadership qualities, as if he’d rather be somewhere else.
As his rival, Lancelot, Stephen Mark Lucas is a striking physical figure whose song, “C’est Moi,” come across as spot-on egoism. It’s easy to see why Guenevere would have the hots for him over the more placid Arthur.
Guenevere, as embodied by the superb Britney Coleman, seems, from the beginning, to have fire in her veins, banked by Arthur’s cold intellectualism. In a way, her sensuality represents man’s quintessential barbarism (“We must not let our passions destroy our dreams”).
As for the Revelers, they’re a mismatched group who look as if they’d run away from, not towards battle. Wearing commedia dell-arte masks and florid capes, they run about, flaring their cloaks, announcing scenes and moving furniture. Sana Sarr doubles effectively as the toy-playing tot and as Tom, the keeper of the flame who will preserve the “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
Mark Lamos has a sure and experienced bent for modernizing classics, never losing sight of the human being even in the midst of a large canvas. Costumes, lights and scenery are minimal. The eight-piece orchestra plays vividly, as if they know that the score, at least, will survive.