What’s a Camelot without a little magic?
Aaron Sorkin works up an answer to that question in the new Lincoln Center Theater production of the 1960 Lerner & Loewe musical, and the result is an adaptation that seems at every turn to be pleading its case for its own relevance. Where the West Wing creator conjured a real sort of writerly sorcery in 2018 with his transformation of the beloved property To Kill A Mockingbird into a new, relevant and thrilling stage work, his efforts this time around often seem strained in their attempts to drag Camelot into the 21st Century.
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In its way, Camelot, at least as we’ve come to know it until now, is, in its stodgy and fitful way, a musical as emblematic of the 1960s as the more obvious generation-defining theatrical statements of the era (“Gimme a head with hair!”). Camelot, with its “might for right” social idealism and tested faith in political heroism, was ever-so-ripe for Jacqueline Kennedy’s picking as a post-JFK myth-maker, a salve for the walking wounded.
And all with a score that was at once lovely and middlebrow, a reminder to today’s audiences that the 1960s weren’t all Beatles and “Aquarius” – throwback Robert Goulet was there too, intoning “If Ever I Would Leave You” on Ed Sullivan and seemingly every other variety show of the age.
Sorkin, whose West Wing placed Kennedy Era idealism firmly and entertainingly, if not always convincingly, into the worlds of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, tries his best to drag Camelot (and its clunky Alan Jay Lerner book) into a post-Trump universe, reuniting with his Mockingbird director Bartlett Sher to make lightning strike twice. It doesn’t, though there are a few flashes that throw enough illumination to let us see where he was going.
On Michael Yeargan’s spare set in a cavernous space – a single tall tree becomes the maypole for some mildly bawdy, vaguely crass springtime dancing, while projected creepy-crawly vines tell us we’ve entered some spooky woods – this Camelot does away with any hint of magic – actual magic, as in spells and sorcery and witchcraft. Sorkin strips T.H. White’s Middle Ages fairy tale filigrees from what is, after all, a Middle Ages fairy tale. Merlin the wizard performs no wizardry here. There’s no water nymph Numue (so no “Follow Me,” perhaps the original score’s most haunting melody). Ex-sorceress Morgan Le Fey is now a scientist and single mom to Mordred, and those invisible walls that once kept King Arthur from catching Guenevere and Lancelot in the act are here replaced with some plain old conniving, a fake-letter ruse that nobody, let alone any King of England, has any right falling for.
Granted, in this telling, that King is more boyish than authoritative, more puppy than lion. As portrayed by Andrew Burnap (a Tony winner for The Inheritance), King Arthur is a modern boy-man through and through, guilt-ridden over his lousy treatment of the woman who deflowered him (never mind that she was a witch, er, scientist and he was only 15) and determined to make good by both her and Mordred (in this telling, the illegitimate son they created). This king even insists on paying whatever the Medieval equivalent of alimony and child support would have been called.
Phillipa Soo’s Guenevere, too, is thoroughly modern (at least until she isn’t), making invaluable contributions toward the Age of Enlightenment as she guides a rather ill-focused Arthur toward a bold new vision of social justice and good, a world in which the King and his knights will meet at an egalitarian Round Table, with no stuffy old seating arrangements to suggest hierarchy.
Still, gender-based habits die hard, and the Guenevere concocted by Sorkin and Soo – snarky and dirty-dancing though she may be – bristles when Arthur refers to her as his “business partner” (then again, who wouldn’t, at least before there really was such a thing among people wearing crowns).
Her umbrage certainly has some heavy-lifting to do – we’re offered little else to explain the sudden attraction to Jordan Donica’s Sir Lancelot, a handsome, vainglorious and, in this telling, rather buffoonish blowhard whose instantaneous connection with the Queen comes off as one of those hate/love-at-first-sight deals that have fueled so many soap Super Couples. Arthur’s lousy word choice is as good a reason as any to explain it, as is Guenevere and Lance’s shared native language – Sorkin has the Queen hailing from France, most likely to set up Arthur’s Act II realization that arranged marriages are slavery by another name.
As beautifully sung as this new Camelot is – and it is, from the expected (Soo’s gorgeous “Before I Gaze At You Again”) to the delightfully surprising (young Trensch comes close to stealing the entire shebang with his rousing, strong-voiced “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and “Fie On Goodness”) – the production nearly scuttles romance along with the magic. When Soo’s Guenevere prods Burnap’s Arthur for a description of their relationship besides the wet-blanket “business partners,” we half-expect the floppy-haired king to answer, “Besties?”
The Queen’s budding romance with the chivalrous French knight is equally inexplicable. They’re both lovely to behold (Soo is splendidly costumed in velvets of deep red and royal blue by Jennifer Moeller) but Donica’s Lancelot is so clownishly arrogant that the bedroom tumble – this version leaves no doubt that the deed is accomplished – seems less than inevitable.
If the acting is a shade less satisfying than the singing, it’s mostly the result of the production’s overall conception – a conception that isn’t unjustifiable, just more swing and a miss. Here again, the performers who come out ahead are the ones outside anything amor, Trensch especially, but also Dakin Matthews as Merlin/Pellinore and Marilee Talkington as Morgan Le Fey.
So we can’t help imagining how much more enticing this Camelot would be if the once and future spell-casters – Merlin, Morgan, the absent Numue – had been given a little magic to work up. Camelot 2023 leaves the impression that the dives into the fantastical taken by Camelot 1960 are musty indulgences incompatible with the social commentary that is Sorkin’s speciality. Guenevere insists (and Arthur grudgingly agrees) that the Sword’s removal from that Stone was no magical feat heralding the arrival of a new king, but merely the end result of thousands of previous attempts to loosen things up. No divine machinations, no fate delivered, merely the democratic efforts of the many.
Now, that’s a clever enough step toward Enlightenment, and it’s not the only one this Camelot takes: Sorkin clearly delights in blurring the chronological sweep of history – Arthur actually refers to living in the Middle Ages – but neither playwright nor director seem able to resist making allusions to the legacy of Arthurian legend on contemporary imaginations. A black-cloaked Mordred could hit the stage of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child without so much as a backstage pass, and Morgan Le Fey’s prognostication that science is about to crack the new century wide open might have more than a few theater buffs flipping through their Angels in America scripts.
Fortunately for Camelot and Lincoln Center audiences, the lack of onstage wizardry doesn’t have much impact on Frederick Loewe’s score, filled with songs (the title number, “What Do The Simple Folk Do?”, “I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight?”) beloved by some, pleasant enough to the rest of us. The original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang, here brought to life by a fine 30-piece orchestra conducted by music director Kimberly Grigsby, go a long way in explaining Camelot’s enduring appeal.
Indeed, the first moments of the overture got their own round of applause at the reviewed performance, the notes perhaps hinting at something this Camelot never really delivers: Nostalgia, for both a Merry Olde England and for an American decade when history really did crack wide open.
Venue: Broadway’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center
Director: Bartlett Sher
Book: Aaron Sorkin, based on the original book by Alan Jay Lerner
Music: Frederick Loewe
Principal Cast: Andrew Burnap, Phillipa Soo, Jordan Donica, Dakin Matthews, Taylor Trensch, Marilee Talkington, with Camden McKinnon, Anthony Michael Lopez, Fergie Philippe, Danny Wolohan
Running time: 2 hr 50 min (including intermission)
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