Irving — Whether you choose to view Lerner and Loewe’s hit 1960 musical Camelot as a classic or as a period piece, Lyric Stage’s production at Carpenter Performance Hall at the Irving Arts Center is nothing less than a definitive production of a work that continues to hold a special place in the history of American theater and culture—and can hold an audience intrigued for well over two hours.
A bit of context answers the question of why do Camelot at all, half a century later. Broadway had, by the late 1950s, reached a plateau halfway between the innocent country folk of Oklahoma! and the frank decadence of Hair and Oh! Calcutta! Plots were lofty and literary (often with exotic settings), subtexts dealt (often on a veiled or even unconscious level) with significant issues, and the music was richly scored, lyrical, and occasionally quasi-operatic. The geniuses of the day—including composer Frederick Loewe and playwright Alan Jay Lerner—found ways to stir all of those elements into commercially viable works. Camelot, based on T.S. White’s brilliantly quirky Arthurian novel The Once and Future King, represents a quintessential product of an era that also gave birth to The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Gypsy, and Man of La Mancha.
Enter Lyric Stage, an inestimably valuable organization that specializes in presenting, with uncompromised production values, works from Broadway’s past. These values include a full, professional, unamplified orchestra under the very able baton of Jay Dias, with uniformly superb singers onstage. Hearing this beautifully crafted and constantly imaginative score played live by an excellent 38-member orchestra in a room just the right size is infinitely superior to the experience of hearing musicals presented with electronically warped accompaniments—a practice that, though dictated by economic reality, has become standard for musicals these days. (Dias uses the original Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang orchestrations.)
Among the principals, Christopher J. Deaton as Lancelot makes the grandest entrance with the mock-heroic “C’est moi.” (We could have done without the distracting fake French accent he affected throughout the performance, however.) J. Brent Alford creates a believably human Arthur who can also sing—far superior to Richard Harris’ flawed rendition of the role in the 1967 movie version. Kristen Beth Williams, also a top-notch vocal talent, likewise plays up the human element as a Guenevere who matures from a petty, protected girl into a woman capable of loving, losing, and accepting her fate.
Sonny Franks as the hapless Pellinore and David Fenley as the otherworldly Merlin bring just the right touch of complexity to these essential secondary roles, while Brandon McInnis radiates a scene-stealing presence as the evil Mordred.
Interestingly, the most powerful moment musically belongs to Kelly Silverthorn in the relatively minor role of Merlin’s seductress Nimue; the aria “Follow Me” would have done Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff proud, and Silverthorn sings it magnificently. Here, the power of live, unamplified (and thus undistorted) orchestral accompaniment (at that particular moment, including offstage chorus) in a mid-sized auditorium is thrillingly evident.
Cornelius Parker’s admirably efficient set—basically a large round platform with occasionally added elements, including a gorgeous tree designed by Bob Lavallee—successfully suggests appropriate breadth and grandeur; director/choreographer Len Pfluger, besides creating a believably human interplay among the main characters, produces a sense of majesty with skillful placement and handling the human elements.
Although ostensibly set in a mythic Medieval England, Camelot reeks of the America of Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy; most Americans of a certain age are aware that Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline Kennedy, one of the smartest politicians who never ran for office, appropriated the image of Camelot as portrayed in the musical as a symbol of her late husband’s administration. The observant viewer may find fault in a drama in which, repeatedly, a seductive woman spoils things for the otherwise capable men (Nimue lures Merlin away just when he’s needed most, Lancelot is pretty well set until he falls for Guenevere, and Arthur, we learn, was just an innocent kid who was seduced by a wicked woman into fathering the villain of the piece, Mordred).
On the other hand, the theme of an idealistic and powerful society helpless to achieve its ideals resonated powerfully both in the Cold War America of 1960, and continues to resonate in the America of 2016. And Lyric Stage’s production very convincingly advocates this significant and enduring monument of America’s vernacular operatic form, the Broadway musical.