"Camelot" is back, this time with a dashing King Arthur in Richard Harris and a winsome Guenevere in Meg Bussert. But while the bountiful and rather stately Lerner and Loewe musical is much more at home in the Winter Garden, where it began a seven-week engagement last night, than it was last year at the New York State (this is the same production with some cast changes), it is just as ponderous a show as ever. The more I see it, the more it calls to mind a splendid coronation ceremony with the grandstand collapsing at the finish.
Harris who, you will recall, took over the male lead when an ailing Richard Burton was forced to withdraw on the West Coast, lacks his predecessor's magnetic charm and, though neither has a singing voice, the other had more style with a lyric. But Harris nevertheless offers an animated, nicely-balanced performance. His gaunt features expressing tenderness, anguish and occasional rapture, he cuts a trim athletic figure. And, after all, it's Guenevere who does most of the vocalizing in this marriage, and Bussert handles her songs beautifully.
But come now, why is "Camelot" such a bore so much of the time? Granted, it's too long, even with the cuts (including two musical numbers) in this production. We could certainly do without most of the silly dancing (I thought "the lusty month of May" would never get to June). And skillfully-fashioned as most of Loewe's score is, it genuinely moves us only twice: Lancelot's ballad "If Ever I Would Leave You" is one of those perfect matings of words and music, and "Follow Me," the siren song drawing Merlyn out of the tale and pratically a throwaway number, uncoils fetchingly in Jeanne Caryl's delivery.
For the most part, the lyrics seem to pull along the music, which is at its most monotonous in the dance sequences and the choral number "Guenevere," repeated ad nauseum.
Last time out, I suggested that Lerner's book "falls somewhere between 'Parsifal' and 'The Vagabond King,' falling most of the way." The main difficulty, though, lies in the fact that the book's heroic subject matter and heroic gestures are the stuff of opera rather than operetta. Verdi might have had a thundering success with the material, say another "La Forza del Destino."
Richard Muenz is again every inch a Lancelot, and his singing of "If Ever I Would Leave You" is surely the evening's musical high point. Barrie Ingham is a thoroughly engaging King Pellinore, Arthur's hearty, bumbling friend, and Richard Backus is an enthusiastically villainous Mordred, Arthur's obnoxious illegitimate offspring who brings about the collapse of the Round Table. James Valentine repeats his broad, balletic-like Merlyn.
Frank Dunlop's book direction, brisk enough at times, is too deliberate at others. Desmond Heeley's sets and costumes, if somewhat less splendid than the Oliver Smith originals, are nevertheless sumptuous and fanciful, and they have been lighted very attractively by Thomas Skelton.
Even given every advantage, as in the current production, "Camelot" remains an irreparably flawed show, lovely to look at but unable to measure up to its aspirations. When Arthur, in dubious battle on alien ground, and with his once-noble kingdom a shambles at the end, orders a boy to head for England and spread the word that once there was a Camelot, we find it difficult to respond, for we've never reached that place emotionally all evening long.
It seems that Camelot, which returned to Broadway at the Winter Garden last night, is a musical that always does things back to front. It is, at least I think it is, the only musical that underwent radical revision after its original Broadway opening, which was in 1960.
Last spring a revival, with its original star Richard Burton, turned up at Lincoln Center looking rather like a road show that had taken the wrong turning, and with Burton, later hospitalized, apparently in ill health, and with his charisma factor glowing rather than shining.
During the subsequent tour Burton had to withdraw for health reasons, and his place was unexpectedly taken by Richard Harris, with whom, equally unexpectedly, it has returned for another Broadway run.
Camelot is a curious musical. It has a first act that seems to last almost as long as Wagner's Das Rheingold, a prologue that virtually gives away the story, and a lame and wistful ending that was hopefully intended to fly off into an infinitude of upbeat sentiment but remains stubbornly ground-born.
Even the love triangle between King Arthur - of Round Table fame - Queen Guinevere, his wife, and Sir Lancelot, his best friend, is not your common or garden love affair. The age of chivalry was not then dead.
Quite a lot of Frederick Loewe's music, when it is not cast in an anachronistically Elizabethan mode, sounds faintly like discards from the earlier Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady, although there are some extraordinarily pleasant, softly piquant, ballads here.
Yet Camelot does have one claim to distinction, at least one, in Alan Jay Lerner's book - to say nothing of his uncommonly adroit lyrics. Here is a real attempt, in the character of Arthur, to place a major tragic figure - the noble, regal cuckold - in the context of a Broadway show.
The role was, of course, written for Burton, then at what proved to be the height of his powers, and the other most famous Arthurs, the late Laurence Harvey in the London production and Richard Harris in the movie version, were also actors of classic stature.
Now Harris is essaying the role for the first time on stage; it is a thoroughly impressive Broadway debut. Harris is a dazzling stage actor lost far too early to movies. Years ago in London in a one-man play, his own adaptation of Gogol's Diary of a Madman, he gave one of the most shattering evenings I have spend in the theater, with a performance of naked genius.
Much older now, he looks gaunt and ravaged - a lion in winter. At the performance I saw - the final preview - he started low-keyed. Even the amplification sounded hushed, perhaps with reverence.
But as the evening progressed, so did Mr. Harris. Soon he was spell-binding, the very model, of regal mortality, his cracking voice sounding like a cry of agony over bleak marshlands, and his nervously wracked body indicating an innter turmoil too deep for words.
I suggest that Harris, the new, old king, makes a return to Camelot a theatergoer's imperative. And since this production's rather dim showing at Lincoln Center, almost all the other leading roles, with the exception of Richard Muenz's stalwartly conventional Lancelot, have been recast. Frank Dunlop's almost Shakespearean staging now has better actors to breathe style into it.
The big change is Barrie Ingham as King Pellinore, who rips his way through the musical with hair-trigger judgment in a performance that is both uncommonly funny and uncommonly touching.
Meg Bussert, as Guinevere, brings good looks, a sweet voice, and a cleverly restrained passion to a role which, like that of Lancelot, can easily droop into the priggish. Richard Backus makes an unusually virile and memorably malevolent Mordred, and, as before, James Valentine is a suitably fantasticated Merlin.
For a number of almost self-evident reasons Camelot will never be one of the truly great Broadway musicals, if only because in its attempt for epic seriousness it either goes too far or not far enough.
Yet this production, particularly through Harris and Ingham, is highly persuasive in showing, in lightning-glimpses, the Camelot which Alan Jay Lerner and Fritz Loewe visualized in their hearts.
Maybe there can be ''Camelot'' without Richard Burton, but it didn't happen in the revival that opened at the Winter Garden last night. While this is, in broad outline, the same production that Mr. Burton brought to the New York State Theater 17 months ago, it is now ruled by Richard Harris as King Arthur. Mr. Harris is by no means an abject pretender to the throne - in fact, he previously occupied it in the Hollywood version of the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical - but his performance is at odds with the very essence of the show's appeal.
Its often gorgeous score notwithstanding, that appeal has little to do with the musical's actual text. Now, as ever, ''Camelot'' is a sweet but vastly imperfect echo of the previous Lerner-Loewe triumph ''My Fair Lady.'' Yet ''Camelot'' endures for a very simple and potent reason. As historical circumstance would have it, this 1960 show is forever tied to our most idealized and sentimental memories of John F. Kennedy's fallen Presidency. Whether by accident or design, Mr. Burton heightened this emotional link by creating a King Arthur who exemplified the witty, youthful and sexy Kennedy style.
Mr. Harris's Arthur, while by no means bad, is far more dour. This performance is, heaven knows, a regal piece of showmanship - full of grand, arrogant gestures, royal pauses and vocal extravagances of the old school. Although the actor's effects sometimes have little to do with the meaning of his lines - why stretch the word ''blows'' in the phrase ''whenever the wind blows this way''? - they do command the stage. And Mr. Harris is quite eloquent in the final scene, in which Arthur passes on his legacy to a young knight-to-be. His Prince Valiant mane askew, his eyes brimming with tears, the star gives us a touch of Henry V at Agincourt.
What's fatally missing from this King, however, are sexual passion and a sense of humor. These qualities are not only crucial because they're needed to give ''Camelot'' the Kennedy glow, but also because the material itself requires them. Mr. Lerner's libretto is, most of all, the story of a love triangle involving Arthur, his Queen and Lancelot - and sizzle it must. While Mr. Harris does show some affection for his Guenevere (Meg Bussert), it is that of a misty, doting father, not a red-hot lover.
Humor is just as essential, for it is the enlivening ingredient of Arthur's character. Mr. Harris's somber, introspective renditions of such light songs as ''I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?'' and ''What Do the Simple Folk Do?'' are certainly noble and novel, but they're also ill advised. By attempting to give us mournful depths where frisky style would do, Mr. Harris simply accentuates the gap that separates this show's lofty ambitions from the brittle, show-biz idiom of much of its writing.
Despite a number of other cast changes, the rest of the production is no sprightlier now than it was under Mr. Burton. Frank Dunlop's staging is still heavy and slow, giving us plenty of time to contemplate the ellipses and contrivances in the book's structure. Buddy Schwab's choreography recalls the silliest whimsies of Hollywood's Howard Keel-Jane Powell musicals. Desmond Heeley's dark driftwood-and-gilt sets, though less sparse looking at the Winter Garden than in the State Theater, make one long for the airy, pastel storybook fantasies of Oliver Smith's opulent originals.
Richard Muenz, the major cast holdover, remains a vibrant and amusing Lancelot, especially in his renditions of ''C'est Moi'' and ''If Ever I Would Leave You.'' Miss Bussert, a knockout in the recent revival of the Lerner-Loewe ''Brigadoon,'' is curiously wan here - although she's far from the first actress to be defeated by the virtually unwritten role of Guenevere. Her singing, as always, is lovely, as is Jeanne Caryl's in the one-song (''Follow Me'') role of Nimue. While Barrie Ingham is routine in the comic lead of Pellinore, that excellent actor Richard Backus gives Act II a boost with his charismatic rendering of the villainous Mordred.
No doubt some audiences - especially young ones new to ''Camelot'' -will still be captivated by this three-hour evening. They'll be able to discover the score afresh and to enjoy Mr. Harris's performance on its own terms. The rest of us, I'm afraid, must face the fact that the glories of ''Camelot'' now live best on the original cast album - and in our fond memories of round tables past.