Since the Middle Ages, King Arthur has been the subject of plays, poems, novels and movies, all of which tried to do justice to his noble vision of chivalry. This revival of "Camelot," starring Robert Goulet, may be the first time Arthurian legend has been presented as a lounge act.
When "Camelot" first arrived on Broadway, in 1960, Goulet was, at least to New York audiences, unknown. To say that his entrance, as Lancelot, 20 minutes into the show, was showstopping is saying a great deal, considering that at least 18 of those minutes had been taken up by the young, vibrant Richard Burton and the always dazzling Julie Andrews.
Goulet now plays Arthur, a role that requires as much youthfulness and vitality as he injected into Lancelot 33 years ago. Goulet still sings well, though Arthur's songs require more acting and comic verve than Lancelot's.
Goulet's vocal style is offhand, not always in synch with the orchestra, not very careful - casual, more suited to a club act than the depiction of an idealistic monarch.
Similarly, his movement is decidedly un-regal. He saunters about the stage without much determination or spunk. It's not hard to see why his knights - and his queen - lost interest in him.
Except for Vanessa Shaw, who sings "Follow Me" hauntingly, the rest of the cast is equally dispiriting. Patricia Kies' major contribution as Guinevere is that she occasionally sounds like Julie Andrews. Here, too, a little acting might help. Instead of capturing the perplexities of being Arthur's queen, she mainly projects an understandable concern for how long she can continue doing these ingenue roles.
Steve Blanchard is an odd Lancelot. His singing is highly mannered, and even the way he walks has a goony buck-and-wing quality to it. James Valentine is insufferably hammy as Pellinore, Tucker McCrady all too charmless as the theoretically mesmerizing Mordred.
The staging is lackluster. The sets seem to have been designed more for durability on a long road tour than for creating magic. The original "Camelot" had its problems, but it had an unmistakable glow. All that's left here is the great score, which you wish were being better performed.
Lerner and Loewe's musical "Camelot," a sentimentalized Arthurian legend schmalzed up into a pretty if prettified Broadway operetta, was the first Broadway show to be elevated by association with a Presidency.
However, you are in for a disappointment if you approach the present revival of "Camelot," starring Robert Goulet, which opened last night at the Gershwin Theater, hoping for more than "a fleeting wisp of glory" from the show invoked by the Kennedy clan for civilization's "one brief shining moment."
Brief it isn't and shining it ain't. And denied the scenic panoply originally provided by Oliver Smith - the scenery by Neil Peter Jampolis is more tastefully adequate than adequately tasteful - even the grandeur has departed.
It was said of the original production you walked out humming the scenery - this time round you leave humming "My Fair Lady."
Of course, "Camelot" back in 1960 certainly had its charms, with some of them, such as the wonderfully lilting and subdued passion of Frederick Loewe's music and the occasionally flashing wit of Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics, surviving triumphantly.
But gone with the wind are the original stellar performances, so the horrid deficiencies, always apparent, of Lerner's book with its stop-and-go dramatic thrust, now become...what would be the word?...glaring, perhaps.
Lerner - basing his story on T.H. White's whimsical "The Once and Future King" - never makes the Round Table ethically clear or dramatically viable, and his love triangle between King Arthur (Goulet), Guenevere (Patricia Kies) and Lancelot (Steve Blanchard) is too sketchy for involvement. We note it without feeling it.
To say Goulet is the fourth and worst Arthur I have seen is not anything like as condemnatory as it sounds, as the other three were Richard Burton, Laurence Harvey and Richard Harris.
But despite his still remarkably mellifluous voice, Goulet makes stick-like little of the role. Most of all, he lacks irony - and if irony doesn't enter into this Arthur's soul, the King becomes singularly soulless.
The rest of the cast proves modestly characterless - most of them generically individualized according to the earlier portrayals of their roles.
Thus a sweet-enough Kies sounds (even looks) quite surprisingly like Julie Andrews in a minor key, while Blanchard in full voice so much resembles Goulet himself as Lancelot in the original cast recording, that he seems consciously to favor quieter phrasing, lessening the evident similarity.
It was actually the blowing-hard Blanchard who offered the only energetic performance of the evening, energy being the quality most conspicuously lacking in the routinely blathering Pellinore of James Valentine and the insectile villainy of Tucker McCrady as Mordred, Arthur's son and nemesis.
The blame for this undistinguished evening devolves on Norbert Joerder, whose direction and choreography reduces the show to a postprandial fast-food entertainment, the modest results of which exceed even the grimmest expectations.
"Camelot" this is not. Well, not at its best, that is. Sir Thomas Malory and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, those hallowed masters of Arthurian legend, would not have been amused, but it might have given Lerner a sad, wry laugh on his way to the bank.
As the first Broadway musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe after "My Fair Lady," "Camelot" was as highly anticipated as a coronation. At the time, the advance sale was the largest in Broadway history. The 1960 musical, which turned out to be the last Lerner and Loewe theatrical collaboration, has grown in stature over the years, primarily because of its superb score.
Drawing upon themes from T. H. White's "Once and Future King," the score combined a lyrical simplicity with a lush romanticism, beautifully captured in numbers like "I Loved You Once in Silence" and "If Ever I Would Leave You." These ballads sung by Guenevere and Lancelot are among the most memorable in the Lerner-Loewe catalogue. King Arthur supplies the wit, with songs like "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight." Subsequently, the title song joined Arthurian legend with American political mythology.
Watching the revival of "Camelot" unfold at the Gershwin Theater, I had the curious sensation of missing Robert Goulet. He was of course very much in evidence, having ascended to the throne of King Arthur. What was absent was Mr. Goulet as Lancelot, the role with which he made his dashing debut. In his place in the revival is Steve Blanchard, who may be the Jean-Claude Van Damme of musical actors.
Although Mr. Blanchard has the voice to sing his role -- true of all three principals -- his raised-eyebrow performance is so mechanical as to make a mockery of the self-mockery of Lancelot's ode to himself, "C'Est Moi." Would Guenevere fall for this square knight of the Round Table? Would she relinquish her heart to such an oak? This one-sided courtship severely diminishes the romance at the center of the story.
Advance promotion for the revival made it seem as if Mr. Goulet was the entire show. This almost turns out to be true. Certainly he is the only star onstage, and "Camelot" should be a three-star vehicle, as it was with Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Mr. Goulet. In assuming the role of Arthur, Mr. Goulet carries the character's regal weight in his full-bodied baritone. Although he does not have Burton's acting timbre, he has a more engaging musical presence than Richard Harris, who seemed nailed to the stage when he played the role in the last revival on Broadway.
Patricia Kies's singing is reminiscent of Julie Andrews and, indeed, she has followed her in several of her other roles. She offers a straightforward approach to Guenevere. Supporting roles are played broadly (James Valentine gesticulating as both Merlyn and Pellinore) and melodramatically (Tucker McCrady as Arthur's bastard son, Mordred). Unwisely, cuts have been made, including one song. Still, Norbert Joerder's direction remains slow-paced. Orchestrally and choreographically, this traveling show needs a tuneup.
One surprise of the revival, which has been touring the United States and Canada, is that it is top heavy with scenery. This must make transportation difficult. The opening scene in the woods near the castle looks like a graveyard for an "Addams Family" funeral, with smoke from dry ice swirling ominously around gnarled trees. In court and on the jousting field, the musical specializes in simulated stone platforms, all interchangeably inefficient.
The sumptuous sets and costumes of the first production would probably be prohibitive in today's economy, but the show would have benefited from a greater expenditure of imagination. The original costume designer, Tony Duquette, accurately described the musical as "a return to the pleasure of the eye." This "Camelot" is close to an eyesore.
With its magical environment, the show would be a far more appropriate choice for the New York City Opera than some of the less atmospheric musicals the company has revived at Lincoln Center. Or it could have been taken in the opposite direction and reinterpreted as a chamber musical, with the emphasis on the score.
That said, there may be an audience for this touring production on Broadway, as there reportedly is on the road. The other night, a typical, traffic-weary New York cabdriver volunteered the information that "Camelot" was absolutely his favorite Broadway musical. What he loved about it was the score (he sang a few numbers) and especially the story. Every time he sees the show or hears the songs, he said, he cries in the same places.
As Mr. Lerner knew, the point of "Camelot" was the ending. After losing everything -- wife, trusted friend, Round Table, kingdom -- Arthur realizes the importance of having experienced "one brief shining moment." The glory that was Camelot was, of course, a feeling later associated with the Kennedy Presidency. Hearing the final chorus of the title song, a theatergoer may respond with a memory of a time of idealism in our country, and also of the rich legacy of Lerner and Loewe's musical theater.
The stage history of "Camelot" is nearly as legendary as the show's subject: After tryouts in Toronto and Boston whose troubles were widely reported in the press, the show opened at the Majestic in December 1960 with the largest advance to date in Broadway history -- reportedly almost $ 3 million -- and a lavish production capitalized at an unheard-of $ 500,000. Though it was received with nearly universal pronouncements of disappointment, "Camelot" certainly did no damage to Richard Burton (Arthur) and Julie Andrews (Guenevere), and it made a star of Robert Goulet (Lancelot).
The chief source of that disappointment was Alan Jay Lerner's book, which stumbled through T.H. White's "The Once and Future King," mixing up elements of musical comedy, operetta and melodrama. Few disputed that the score Lerner wrote with Frederick Loewe had its share of gems.
The current revival brings Goulet, now playing Arthur, back to Broadway after a long tour, and it has disappointments all its own, beginning with the star.
Goulet's baritone is still rich, though it's delivered in the style of an era long past. More important, Arthur's songs were written to be acted, virtually half-sung, and as an actor, Goulet is a stiff.
His movements are awkward and yet betray a casual regard for the rest of the action onstage, and he gesticulates his way through a song with the misplaced self-assurance of a first-year acting student.
Even cruder is Patricia Kies' summer-stock Guenevere, though her voice on occasion eerily recalls Andrews'.
And on a plane of incompetence all its own is the Lancelot of Steve Blanchard , who blunders through the part as if he were one of the Dukes of Camelot. He has a rock star's lengthy blond coif and his work is oddly disjunctive, as if the soundtrack were slightly trailing his movements.
Indeed, Norbert Joerder's dreary staging seems to have been accomplished via robotic devices. Vanessa Shaw offers a beautifully sung Nimue, and James Valentine has some fun doubling up as Merlyn and the blustery, befuddled king-without-a-kingdom, Pellinore.
Tucker McCrady is a puckish Mordred, which doesn't quite do the trick. Audiences in 1960 were thrilled by the sets and costumes, to which this tour-on-Broadway pays homage, in a tacky, lotsa-fog-swirling-around-the-stage way.
Despite having cut one song and one role, the show plays sluggishly and without a jot of enthusiasm.
All this will matter little to audiences in search of the familiar, which "Camelot" offers up in spades. Burton found that out when he reprised the role poorly in 1980, as did Richard Harris, who took it over when Burton fell ill.
The stand at the cavernous Gershwin should do quite well with the summer tourist trade. But this production is another tired replication of a show that needs all the commitment its stars can muster.