In defense of sap

Posted on 16 Sep 2016 at 7:35am

Often maligned as cheesy, ‘Camelot’ remains a solid, satisfying musical

Kristen Bell Williams and J. Brent Alford excel as history’s first power couple in Lyric’s ‘Camelot.’ (Photo by Michael C. Foster)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor

Camelot has long been the reputable musical that it’s completely permissible to shit on. It enjoyed a healthy initial two-year run, opening just weeks after JFK was elected and closing less than a year before his assassination, and its presence in the Zeitgeist almost defined his presidency: The White House was Camelot, John the idealistic King Arthur, Jackie his lovely Guenevere. The metaphor was awkward — both stories end in tragedy, though their legacies live on.

Still, many dismiss the Lerner and Loewe musical for being naïve to the point of saccharine: It’s talky and sincere and slightly meta, with knowing jokes and a contemporary vibe (well, contemporary for 1960). The score is soaringly lush and romantic. And it didn’t help that the film version is pretty terrible.

But I love it.

Full disclosure: It was the first musical I ever acted in during my adolescent stage career, so much of the show is embedded in my DNA. But even decades later, it still manages to choke me up. Call it sappy. It’s damn good theater, especially as presented by Lyric Stage.

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-8-12-55-pmThis was the team, after all, who perfected the literary musical, first with My Fair Lady (adapted from Shaw’s Pygmalion) then the film musical Gigi (after Colette) before settling on T.H. White’s sweeping retelling of the Arthurian legend, a more high-falutin literary take than, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of Norse mythology. They helped redefine the musical format with more structure and high-handedness. Why not tackle the formation of democratic ideals in a colorful pageant, with the specter of adultery adding a hint of Peyton Place?

Like My Fair Lady, Camelot rests a lot of the business of the story on the shoulders of a sharp-tongued hero (King Arthur, here played effortlessly well by J. Brent Alford) who lilts more than sings his songs, while the coloratura vocals rest of the female lead (played by Kristen Bell Williams). In both shows, the leads seem to exists in a sexless romance that gets mucked up when the leading lady gets the hots for another guy (Christopher J. Deaton, a seductive Lancelot). The forbidden love between Ginny and Lance is egged on by the devious bastard son of Arthur, the aptly sinister Mordred (Brandon McInnis).
Although it was a hit during the Kennedy Administration, it’s easy to see how politically relevant it remains today: A power couple brought down by a sex scandal, whose best intentions end up being ephemeral. Utopia is not sustainable, whether you blame Mordred or Roger Ailes.

One of the digs taken at Camelot is that its more about the scenery than the songs, but that’s not true in this production. Indeed, aside from one massive twisted tree, the scenic elements are at a minimum, which allows you to concentrate on how Lerner insinuates clever and occasionally racy lyrics into the numbers; “Take Me to the Fair” may be the show’s most under-appreciated song, and this production includes the often-deleted “Fie on Goodness!” (with its hints at rape), though the character of Morgan LeFey (and her number) is entirely excised. Jay Dias, Lyric Stage’s phenomenal musical director, apparently couldn’t get permissions for that section of the score, which is a shame.

Still, focus not on what they don’t have, but what they do: Williams’ clarion-clear voice, Alford’s Rex Harrison-ish sass, McInnis’ oily, The-Joker-As-Anarchist take on Mordred, and an under-valued score. Roll your eyes if you must thinking Camelot is old hat; the rest of us will be enjoying a hoot of show.

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