In 1960, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe followed their 1956 megahit My Fair Lady with the musical Camelot. Its arrival on Broadway coincided with the election of John Kennedy, and many people extended the vision of a “magical kingdom” to his ascendance as America’s charismatic 35th president. Some of the charm of their earlier success was passed along as the young Julie Andrews moved from the role of Eliza Doolittle to that of Queen Guinevere. There were other parallels — Richard Burton took on the speak-singing role of King Arthur (similar to Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins), and Robert Coote played the dragon-chasing King Pellynor (Coote was Col. Pickering in My Fair Lady). Several of Camelot’s musical numbers resembled those in My Fair Lady. However, Robert Goulet became an instant star as Lancelot, the arrogant French knight who stole Guinevere’s heart — and that of every woman who heard him sing “If Ever I Would Leave You” with his glowing baritone voice.
Unfortunately for Camelot, the great success of My Fair Lady was a tough precedent to follow. Camelot’s “book” (that is, the play and the story on which Lerner and Loewe’s glorious score was hung) was based on T. H. White’s retelling of the King Arthur story in more contemporary terms, The Once and Future King (1958, but an assemblage of fictional pieces White had published, starting in 1938). It’s a long and complicated novel, and Camelot failed to condense it successfully. There is too much focus on lighthearted humor and a dependence on of emotional distillation that keeps the story from making enough sense.
I explain by way of saying that Camelot isn’t produced very often because its script is so uneven. So when I heard that the Carnegie Center in Covington had chosen the show for its third concert staging, working together with members of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, I was elated. We’d be able to hear the lovely score and not have to spend a lot of time on the unwieldy and insufficiently motivated plot. There has been some condensation of the story, but not enough — its running time is more than two hours, including an intermission. It would have been easy to remove several characters altogether, especially the silly old-man humor of Pellynor, which wears thin in his first scene and becomes irritating in his reappearances. The evil Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, doesn’t show up until Act II, and his motivation for being the bad boy is anything but clear. His sill song about candy and sweets with Morgan le Fay is really unnecessary.
The Carnegie’s Camelot (which runs through Feb. 3) is redeemed by its three leading performers. Mark Hardy is pleasant as King Arthur, a nervous young king whose confidence grows, despite his tenuous grip on his wife and his kingdom. He conveys Arthur’s idealism and wrestles with the indignation over being betrayed by his wife and his leading knight, even thought those matters are not very convincingly scripted. Everyone has been swooning over professional singer Doug Carpenter’s performance as the handsome Lancelot; I loved listening to his gorgeous voice, but I found his performance rather one-note. Lancelot is an arrogant, self-important prig at the outset, and he never improves much. (The only reason Guinevere falls for him — according to the script — is because he performs a miracle by resuscitating a knight he has killed in a joust. Is that really sufficient motivation for a love affair?)
The most pleasing performance is Danielle M. Knox as Guinevere. She makes the young queen a charming match for the uncertain king, begins to show some independence and then conveys believable remorse as the story concludes. Along the way, Knox’s lovely soprano makes her performance a delight, singing numbers including “Before I Gaze at You Again” and “I Loved You Once in Silence.” This is her first appearance locally, and I look forward to seeing her in more musical productions.
Director Brian Robertson’s simple staging, with 11 musicians at center stage led by CCO Music Director Mischa Santora, surrounded by a castle wall of curving stone and an arch filled with projections that set various scenes, worked effectively. I just wish the whole show had been pared down to about 90 minutes of grand music. That would have been a thoroughly enjoyable evening — perfect for the kingdom of Camelot.
CAM ELOT , presented by the Carnegie Center for Performing and Visual Arts, runs through Feb. 3.