Dead of Knight: Camelot is a crowd pleaser — if you're a Muny crowd that's hell-bent on being pleased

Jul 29, 2009 at 4:00 am

For nearly a half-century now, Lerner and Loewe's grandiose, at times bellicose, musical extravaganza Camelot has been difficult to pigeonhole. Critics often knock this sketchy foray into the legend of King Arthur, yet audiences flock to it. On opening night of this week's Muny production, the large, friendly crowd generously applauded at the end of almost every scene, as if the viewers were willing the show to be good.

And there are some good things about this staging, beginning with Jeff McCarthy's Arthur. In recent years McCarthy has become a welcome Muny visitor. Now that he's gotten the hang of the stage, he seems to be having fun. He knows how to make a scene work even when he's half a football field away from someone who under more conventional circumstances would be standing next to him. When McCarthy is alone onstage, he's not afraid to be still — as he is, for instance, when he sits in a chair and effectively sings the tender first verse of "How to Handle a Woman." McCarthy has the makings of a nuanced Arthur — tall and regal, yet impish and insecure. But something is clearly askew when Arthur seems more comfortable in the company of crusty, rusty old King Pellinore (brought to jocular life by Fred Applegate, who lurches his way through the evening's most satisfying portrayal) than in the company of Queen Guenevere (Jenny Powers).

Something is missing here. This production lacks the one trait that is most needed to make any staging of Camelot work. Camelot doesn't need spectacle — it needs conviction. The actors have to believe the story they're telling. This cast feels adrift. The Muny playbill informs us that director Stone Widney was a close ally of Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote Camelot's book and lyrics. Perhaps Widney knows this musical too well; perhaps he is too aware of its many pockmarks. He fills the evening with lots of stately processions, but the show's naked idealism eludes him. Because the production has no spine, even its two fail-proof sequences fall flat.

The first occurs after the all-too-perfect Lancelot has mortally wounded another knight at a joust. Lancelot then amazes the entire court by restoring the dead man to life. This silent, prayerful resurrection usually elicits goose bumps. But as perfunctorily staged here, Lancelot (the very un-French Lewis Cleale) takes no time with the scene. There is no suspense, no aura of the mystical. It's left to Pellinore (in the next scene) to tell us how magical that moment was supposed to have been.

Lost too is the impact of the final duologue between Arthur and a young boy he meets on the battlefield. The entire evening builds to this tender and valiant scene, when Arthur realizes that his life (which is now in disarray) has not been in vain. His legacy will live. But McCarthy goes way too fast and glides over the scene's pathos. How could a director not steer his actors through the many rich values in this exchange between man and child?

Instead of playing to Camelot's occasional strengths, this production reminds us of its flaws. It reminds us, for instance, of the extent to which key action occurs offstage. "Guenevere," an ensemble number late in Act Two that has everyone cruising the stage in hooded robes, looks like a homage to the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut.

Once you start picking, it's hard to stop: Why, for instance, is Merlyn the Magician wearing the kind of antlers you might show off at a Christmas party? (I half expected them to light up.)

As I left the theater, two elderly women behind me were positively agog. "It was fantastic," one enthused. "The best production so far this summer," her friend gushed. It wasn't, but those two fans personify why Camelot continues to satisfy. They arrived in Forest Park wanting to believe, and they allowed no realities to get in the way. If only the staff that patched this production together had shared in that same blind belief, we could all be singing its praises.

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