By Harry Forbes
Director Bartlett Sher's winning streak of lavish musical revivals at the Vivian Beaumont has hit something of a bump with the current mounting of Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe's classic 1960 musical derived from T.H. White's “The Once and Future King.”
With a new book by Sher's sometime collaborator Aaron Sorkin -- one which largely robs the narrative of love, romance, and passion -- and a striking but overly austere setting by Michael Yeargan, this revival isn’t exactly dull but, by the same token, not greatly satisfying.
Andrew Burnap, Tony winner for “The Inheritance,” is an intelligent actor, and he has some particularly strong moments in the second act, but especially as no one uses English accents here, registers as less "kingly than the great Arthurs of the past like Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Laurence Harvey, (and more recently) Gabriel Byrne and Jeremy Irons. So, too, Arthur really should be older than Lancelot who, as we learn in the original Act One close, speaks of Lancelot as an ideal friend, brother, and son. (In “The Once and Future King,” Lancelot journeys from France to Camelot in the first place because he grew up hearing of Arthur’s roundtable.)
Phillipa Soo is a lovely Guenevere with a proper regal bearing and enunciation, and sings impressively with a decent soprano top but, thanks to Sorkin’s book, comes across as rather chilly. Jordan Donica as Lancelot is an imposing presence with a powerful baritone. Donica’s entrance from the rear of the stage, as if coming over the horizon, is wonderfully effective, and his boastful entrance song, “C’est Moi,” strongly vocalized. By contrast, his once chart-topping second act ballad, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” seems consciously soft-pedaled to avoid being a “big” moment.
Sorkin has taken magic and miracles out of the story, which, given the source material, is akin to denuding “The Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter” of their magical elements. Merlyn is a wise man not a wizard; Morgan Le Fey (Marilee Talkington) a scientist, not a sorceress. And so on. The relatable humanity of Lerner’s original “Camelot” script was surely not in the least diminished by co-existing with the magical elements.
Sorkin makes sure that Guenevere is here a decisive “modern” woman with agency. Her marriage to Arthur is one of political necessity (“business partners” as the script has it) to keep the peace between England and France, similar to Shakespeare’s Henry V wooing his Katherine. The title song, wherein Arthur charms Guenevere with his description of the perfect weather of Camelot, is here tiresomely stressed by Sorkin as being merely figurative. (Did audiences ever think otherwise?)
The script's overall lingo, expletives included, is very present day contemporary and politically correct at every turn. The sense of deep love and kinship the three principals should have for each other is missing.
Dakin Matthews is outstanding as Merlyn and then as Pellinore. Taylor Trensch is brattily menacing as Arthur's illegitimate son, and delivers “The Seven Deadly Virtues” well enough. The three principal knights -- Sir Sagramore (Fergie Philippe), Sir Lionel (Danny Wolohan), and Sir Dinadan (Anthony Michael Lopez) -- are played rather villainously.
As with the prior Sher productions, LCT has not scrimped on the musical side of things. And though Frederick Loewe's score doesn't afford nearly as many opportunities for orchestral splendor at “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” or “My Fair Lady,” the sounds from the pit, heard in their original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang (and Trude Rittmann’s dance and choral arrangements), under the baton of Kimberly Grigsby, rate as one of this production's strongest assets.
However, there are cuts. Apart from a little orchestral underscoring, “Follow Me,” originally sung by the cut character of Nimue, is excised. As is half of Arthur's “How To Handle A Woman” (nicely sung by Burnap). I can understand cutting the middle section - “Merlyn told me once: Never be too disturbed if you don’t understand what a woman is thinking. They don’t do it often” -- but this is one of the gems of the score and it's given surprisingly short shrift. By compensation, “Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” cut from the original production and subsequent ones, but known from the original cast album and the 1967 movie, is restored. Guenevere’s “The Lusty Month of May” number has some nice maypole choreography by Byron Easley, but the show affords little opportunity for dance otherwise.
The sequence known as “The Jousts” wherein the chorus describes how Lancelot defeats the three knights against which he is competing, is gone altogether. That sequence is replaced by a sword fight (well staged by seasoned fight director B.H. Barry), wherein Arthur inexplicably takes the place of the third knight. Originally, Lancelot vanquishes Sir Lionel, running him through with his lance, but then brings him back to life, a miracle that is possible because of his genuine moral purity at that point. Here, Lancelot knocks Arthur unconscious and when it is proclaimed a miracle, Arthur sloughs all that off as superstition. No miracles allowed in Sorkin’s telling.
And I must also mention that Lancelot has here appropriated Guenevere's lovely "I Loved You Once in Silence." Well sung, but why?
The moving final scene of the show wherein Arthur exhorts young Tom of Warwick (actually future “Morte D’Arthur” author Thomas Mallory) to run to safety and tell the world the story of Camelot, is largely spoiled by the stiff performance of the young actor in that small but pivotal role.
Michael Yeargan’s set, dominated by concentric arches, encompasses the entire width and depth of the Beaumont stage and would be an ideal setting for, say, Shakespeare's War of the Roses plays. But staged on such a vast canvas, this Camelot seems strangely under populated. It’s a far cry from Oliver Smith’s colorful fairytale bright sets of the original production, and also art director John Truscott’s rich green and gold naturalistic hues of the film. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are plush but dark like the set, apart from the “Lusty Month of May” sequence.
Still, for all its shortcomings, there's enough quality here to make the show worth your time though musical theater buffs will know they’re not getting the genuine article. The film, despite some excesses and star Richard Harris's sometimes mannered emoting, is there to remind us how the show should go, especially as Lerner’s own screenplay skillfully solved some of the problematic elements of his original stage script.
(Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65 Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)
Photos by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Phillipa Soo, Andrew Burnap, Dakin Matthews, Jordan Donica, and companyPrint this post