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There Ought to Be a Law: “Camelot” reviewed

A revised book robs the flawed classic of any majesty

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe sure knew their way around a tune, and Camelot, one of the pair’s final outings, saw them out with some of their best: the lush “If Ever I Would Leave You,” the frisky “C’est Moi,” the wistful title song. Their nimble know-how is still on display in the new Lincoln Center Theater revival, which, under the direction of Bartlett Sher and with a severely revised book by Aaron Sorkin, casts the show in a new lens. Yes, Camelot surely has a fabled place in the musical canon, what with that gorgeous score and rich source material. Heck, it even has a magician in it! So why does this production fail to cast a spell?

A holdover from Broadway’s original golden age, Camelot is shrouded in the cultural mythos, thanks in large part to Jackie Kennedy using it to apply to her husband’s brief and tragic time in the White House, in an early case of public branding (shortly after his assassination, she asserted that he loved and often listen to the cast recording; he’d attended Harvard with Lerner – no one knows if any of this is true). But while the score is gorgeous and resonant, Lerner’s book bit off far more than most musicals could ever digest. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is tricky text to adapt and condense in any form, especially the stage. Much of the show’s long first act is a preamble, of sorts, setting up the connecting tissue between King Arthur, his wife Guenevere, and trusted knight Lancelot. The antagonists and true conflict, both external and internal, don’t truly arrive until the second act, almost two full hours into the show. There are tonal shifts and character motivations that seem to shift with the wind, and while it’s a romance, there’s barely a true duet to be shared among any permutation of the leads. It’s an imperfect musical best remembered for its score and its era. Like Funny Girl, which received its first-ever revival last year to a  middling reception, the lack of visibility within the culture worked to its advantage: absence truly made the theatrical heart grow fonder.

Sher’s revival shifts the gaze away from the kind heart and up to a more discerning organ: the brain. The problems with Camelot have been protracted by a script by Sorkin, an esteemed writer largely unaffiliated with musical theatre. (Yes, I know he holds a BFA in Musical Theatre from Syracuse. You wouldn’t know it from his celebrated resume, and you wouldn’t know it from this production.) The new book doesn’t really reflect his earlier works, which were fun and didn’t necessarily condescend to his audience (A Few Good Men, The American President). Instead, it descends in a direct line from his more arrogant work in The Newsroom.

Among many instances, there is one moment where Olivia Munn’s character makes a random reference to the song “Let the River Run” – and has to mention that Carly Simon wrote and sang it, that it was from Working Girl, and that mike Nichols directed it. That line wasn’t him writing for character; that was Sorkin showing off to the audience about what he knew. There’s a similar vein of “tell us you know it, don’t show it” here. Sorkin doesn’t seem to want to preserve the legend of Camelot, but he’s using this opportunity to preserve his own myth.

Sorkin has meddled with the material so that it now meets him where he is most comfortable; the elegant and the evergreen have now given way to the colloquial and the snarky. We can sense this immediately when one knight asks another if he knows where the missing King Arthur might be, and gets the response “I have the exact same amount of information that you do!” At one point, one character refers to another as a “jackass.” And when Arthur (Andrew Burnap, of The Inheritance) first sings the title song to Guenevere, she makes fun of the song (!) and of him, for emphasizing the nice climate of a place in England. “It’s a metaphor!” he says. “I know what a metaphor is,” Guenevere responds. In fact, this she knows and thinks a great many things. Sorkin’s Camelot is a house of cards, and very quickly it becomes clear that Guenevere holds all of them.

With Lerner’s book, Arthur and Guenevere marry to preserve peace between Britain and France. Not only are we to believe there is an attraction between the two of them, but she supports his idealistic notion of nurturing a society rooted in justice. Under Sorkin, Guenevere co-author’s Arthur’s  treatises), invites the working classes to the Maying celebration, encourages the knights to read Plato, and aspires to a more civilized society, which, here, at which the knights bristle, upset about surrendering their hereditary privileges. But at some point, she must abandon her higher ground: eternal peace is disturbed when she falls for Lancelot (Jordan Donica of My Fair Lady), the king’s must trusted knight, and he, despite his discipline and fealty, carries a torch for the queen. Alas, utopia can’t last forever.

But Sorkin never even gives it a chance, ridding both the world of Camelot and this production of any magic. Merlin dies between scenes (we get no Nimue in this production, and no “Follow Me.”) Arthur’s reported feat with pulling the sword out of the stone is now credited to the many attempts before him loosening it by the time he took his turn, as though Excalibur were a mere ketchup bottle. Morgan le Fay (Marilee Talkington) is no longer a sorceress but a scientist, and is also an ex of the king and the mother of their son, the sniveling Mordred (Taylor Trensch). (In an odd example of Sorkin’s prudishness, the show is vague about whether or not Arthur and Guenevere ever even have sex, but he’s all too quick to reveal that Morgan was Arthur’s first.) That all three characters remain well intentioned is a problem not solved by Mordred’s late arrival; worse yet, all three leads remain passive throughout. Stone cannot melt on its own.

The songs don’t stay the same, either, as a result of Sorkin’s chess game with the material. Despite now being far more morally upright and aware of the station of womenkind, Guenevere still sings “The Lusty Month of May” and flirts with the knights in “Take Me to the Fair,” which makes no sense – nor does the decision to have Lancelot sing “I Have Loved You in Silence” instead of Guenevere. While music director Kim Grigsby’s orchestra of 29 sounds great, the sound design of Marc Salzberg and Beth Lake does its leads no favors – many times, both Donica and Soo were inaudible. (Donica struggles with “If Ever I Would Leave You,” perhaps because a pretty-opening bout with COVID). The newly reconceived Mordred, now the show’s primary villain, singing “The Seven Deadly Virtues” no longer holds logic, either.

To try and squeeze as much plot development into an already long show, Sorkin has condensed major elements into the stuff audiences typically deride from the world of daytime drama. Jealous of the hold Morgan seems to have on her husband, Guenevere and Lancelot cuckold him (or attempt to) out of her jealousy. But on a soap, this kind of misguided one-night stand would likely result in an unplanned pregnancy – here it destroys the (never-seen!) Round Table and starts a war.

Towards the show’s end, Sorkin really seems to throw his hands up in deference to the material, tossing what remains into a writerly blender. One Mordred discovers Guenevere and Lancelot, the number “Guenevere” is shortened to the point that we don’t realize that Arthur has arranged the execution to facilitate Lancelot’s rescue of her. Other important action is shoehorned into the last twenty minutes of the show, but occurs offstage. We no longer see Arthur weep with joy knowing that Guenevere will not be burnt at the stake, knowing as he does it will lead to the death of many and the fall of Camelot. As embarrassed as he seems to be with Lerner’s touches of romance, Sorkin then tosses in a clunkier one at the end, with a new scene in which Arthur confirms he did always love his queen.

If Sorkin is the Mordred of this Camelot, seemingly bent on destroying it from the inside, Sher, too, is complicit in rendering this colorful kingdom into a cavernous world of gray. Michael Yeargan’s set, with its wrought-iron screens, is vast but hollow, and the projections by 59 Productions’ projections, of snow, overcast skies and leafless forests feel cold; Lap Chi Chu’s generally effective lighting largely avoids color. This is a stark contrast to the grand revivals Sher has shepherded at Lincoln Center Theater in the past, like The King and I, My Fair Lady, and South Pacific.

While his production leaves Donica and Soo hanging out to dry, Burnap proves more effective, charting a moving path for a young king blinded by his own privilege ultimately hardened by heartbreak beyond his control. In a dual role as Merlyn and Pellinore, the veteran Dakin Matthews works minor miracles for three hours. And Danny Wolohan makes every moment count as Sir Lionel.

Despite Jennifer Moeller’s colorful costumes, this big-budgeted production remains a drab, almost empty affair. Camelot is very much a product of its time, the halcyon days of free love and experimentation. It isn’t intuitive to modernize it for an era of evolved social mores and public scrutiny. Sorkin has used modern times to build a world only to bring it down, but he has forgotten that the story lies within the time it must stand upright. The three legs of the triangle at the center of this triangle must feel at the start as though they can withstand anything, not buckle under the first threat. We never see the inner life, the fire that fuels the lust of Arthur, his Jenny, and the fair Lancelot. With nothing to mourn, what’s left in Camelot to revere?

Camelot

Vivian Beaumont Theater

www.lct.org