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Review: In a Sorkinized ‘Camelot,’ That’s How Conditions Are. Alas.


About 30 minutes into its 90-minute first act, the Lincoln Center Theater revival of “Camelot” finally wakes up, as if from a pleasant drowse. That’s when Jordan Donica, as Lancelot, who has arrived in England to join King Arthur’s Round Table, tears into the boastful “C’est Moi” like a lion ripping huge bites of dramatic flesh with his teeth.

And then, apparently sated, the show, which opened Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, goes back to sleep for another spell, as if this were “Brigadoon.”

If only it were! But “Camelot,” the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical based on T.H. White’s Arthurian tales, has what you might call a post-operetta problem. Neither content to be agreeable piffle nor ready to be Sondheimesque psychodrama, it aims for a middle path, welding Arthur’s romantic life with a free-spirited queen to his rethinking of governance with a recalcitrant gentry. Both fail, as does the show, in a way that “Brigadoon,” the team’s 1947 hit, aiming lower, does not.

In “Camelot,” the clever, lightweight style of Lerner’s dialogue, and the show-off triple rhymes of his lyrics, clash with his ambition. They make Loewe’s profoundly polished music, in songs like “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?” and “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” which open the show, come off as charming tea party tunes. Only in flashes does the “serious” part recover, but by then it’s too late. After Lancelot finishes “C’est Moi,” the story goes back to bed for 40 minutes, at last reawakening to the clangs of a thrilling sword fight.

That’s not a problem a rewrite could readily solve, or at any rate it’s not one that Aaron Sorkin did. His revisions for the director Bartlett Sher’s spare-no-expense production — visually and sonically gorgeous — do make some improvements. The silly supernatural subplots have been excised (along with a beautiful song, “Follow Me”) and Guenevere, Arthur’s involuntary queen, has been strengthened with snappy backtalk. She’s now a kind of medieval Katharine Hepburn.

But Sorkin cannot solve the riddle of the love triangle connecting Guenevere (Phillipa Soo) to the boyish Arthur (Andrew Burnap) on one side and the hunky Lancelot on the other. The riddle is: When is a triangle a flat line? Because only by rigging up questions of fidelity that make everyone look silly does Lerner’s plot engine turn over at all. Is Arthur still in love with the sorceress Morgan Le Fey, a woman he hasn’t seen since he was 15? Does Guenevere desire Lancelot? Who doesn’t? And why, in any case, should we care?

Sorkin tries to shore up Lerner’s droopy stories by rooting the personal conflict in the political and social experiments of the time — or of some time, anyway. The new book, which is set on “the eve of the Enlightenment,” even though that was about a millennium post-Arthur, is not fussy about period. Indeed, it winks at its muddled chronology: “The Middle Ages won’t end by itself,” Arthur says, as if he knew he were middling.

The historical backfill is present in White’s and Lerner’s versions, too: The idea of changing a culture of violence to one of justice is at the heart of the story. (It’s the reason Arthur convenes his knights.) The problem is that the musical doesn’t musicalize that, which is why after an hour of brittleness you desperately need the sword fight. (The fight director, still full of surprises, is the great B.H. Barry.) Even the title number, which Sorkin has Guenevere call “that stupid song about the weather,” praises the Camelot revolution in purely sybaritic terms. “The rain may never fall till after sundown” sounds like a boast on Airbnb.

Lacking songs to support them, Sorkin’s historical enhancements fall flat. Particularly unconvincing is his sidebar on the evolution of magic into science, with Merlyn (Dakin Matthews, excellent) now a sage, not a wizard, and Morgan (Marilee Talkington) some kind of chemist. (Let’s not even get into Mordred, the mortifying Plot Necessity played by Taylor Trensch.) Forced to maintain the Lerner framework, he can neither justify the romantic story on modern terms nor distract from it in ways that make musical sense.

The romance at least gives the principals something to do besides spouting ideas, and gives the audience, especially with Lancelot, something to hear. (After “C’est Moi,” he sings the almost-too-rich “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “I Loved You Once in Silence.”) And though Guenevere mostly gets the tea party numbers, delivered creamily, and Arthur (perhaps in deference to the vocal talents of the role’s originator, Richard Burton) gets almost nothing, both are appealing and play the West Wing of the Castle banter beautifully.

Not that there’s a castle. In this, his fifth Golden Age musical revival, and fourth for Lincoln Center Theater, Sher has changed his visual approach. Not so much the costumes, by Jennifer Moeller, which are just as stunning as ever; if you wear velvet gowns or quilted tabards, you’ll want to collect them all. But instead of scenic coups like the orchestra reveal in “South Pacific” and the 52-foot ship in “The King and I,” the set designer Michael Yeargan, the lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and the projection designers at 59 Productions have pared everything to a few basic elements: arches, screens, snow, branches, shadows and “Seventh Seal” silhouettes.

With so little furniture onstage, Sher, incapable of not making pretty pictures, keeps everyone moving busily; if the story refuses to make a triangle, he’ll compensate with dozens in his blocking. However fascinating that is to watch, the result feels abstract and analytical, of a piece with Byron Easley’s dainty choreography and, not to harp on them, Lerner’s lyrics. For “My Fair Lady” Lerner was able to find words that expressed character and period; in “Camelot” (with no underlying Shaw play to assist) he finds words that mostly express himself, on the bubble of the 1960s, sophisticated and dry.

That is not, however, what you hear coming from the pit, where, under Kimberly Grigsby’s baton, 30 musicians play the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang. Their superb characterization of the story in pure sound makes you feel what the show onstage doesn’t.

It may also make you feel a bit sad. What’s to be done with such beautiful work, wedded to such intractable problems? How many more Golden Age musicals can Sher and Lincoln Center Theater lavish their love on before the project turns into Encores! with elephantiasis? Is Kelli O’Hara in “Flahooley” next?

Well, to be honest, I’d be there for that. But “Camelot” is a show promoted above its station because of its music and Kennedy-era associations. Neither, it seems, is sufficient today. When Arthur reports, in “How to Handle a Woman,” that the answer is simply to “love her, love her, love her,” you can’t help thinking Lerner is not in his wheelhouse. (He married eight times.) Love, with both people and musicals, isn’t enough when the differences are irreconcilable.

At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes.


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