Jordan Donica as Lancelot in Lincoln Center Theater's 'Camelot'
Jordan Donica as Lancelot in Lincoln Center Theater’s ‘Camelot.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

The Rundown

After scoring a hat trick with successfully lauded Lincoln Center Theater revivals of South Pacific, The King and I, and My Fair Lady, hopes were high that director Bartlett Sher could pull a rabbit out of a hat by brushing layers of dust off Golden Era favorite Camelot

However, with a heavily rewritten book by Aaron Sorkin (Being the Ricardos, The West Wing, A Few Good Men) that eschews any magic associated with the musical adaptation of the Arthurian legend, Sher is left with nothing up his sleeve. The result is Sorkin’s retrofitted play, where mostly incongruous songs with erudite lyrics infrequently pop in. A culinary equivalent would be having a four-course chili dinner with intermittent champagne cocktails — each fine on their own merits, but not when served together.

No Tea, No Shade

As written in Alan Jay Lerner’s original libretto, Camelot opens with King Arthur (Andrew Burnap) hiding up a tree while he and his kingdom await the arrival of his bride, Guenevere (Phillipa Soo). Neither Arthur nor his bride-to-be seems too eager for the trip down the aisle — an arranged marriage to prevent a war between England and France. But the crazy kids fall in love, and all seems well until the arrival of the French knight Lancelot (a strapping Jordan Danica with a voice to match), who makes the other knights jealous while catching the eye of the queen. 

Act II brings the arrival of Arthur’s bastard son Mordred (Taylor Trensch), who plays on the knights’ jealousies and uses Lancelot and Guenevere’s clandestine affair to create a civil war and undo Arthur’s utopia. Camelot originally featured magical subplots involving the reverse-aging wizard Merlin, who gets lured away by the nymph Nimue, the sorceress Morgan Le Fey who traps Arthur in an invisible castle, and a miracle performed by Lancelot in which he brings a slaughtered knight back to life.

Lincoln Center Theater's Camelot
(l-r) Phillipa Soo, Andrew Burnap, and Jordan Danica in Lincoln Center Theater’s ‘Camelot.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

In Sorkin’s new version, the magic is literally gone. Merlin (wonderfully played by Dakin Matthews, who does double duty by playing hapless knight Sir Pelinore) is no longer a wizard but just an old man who knows things. Morgan Le Fey (an oddly costumed Marilee Talkington) is now a scientist with a drug problem. Nimue is gone altogether. And Lancelot’s only miracle is how hot he looks in armor.

Instead, Sorkin focuses on the social aspects of the play and how Arthur changed the role of knights (cleverly but interchangeably embodied by Danny Wolohan, Fergie Philippe, and Anthony Michael Lopez). But with an emphasis on politics and the obvious absence of magic, the evening plays like an episode of House of Dragons without the dragons.

“Things are changing too fast,” lament the knights. Were that only the case. As Arthur, Burnap does a yeoman’s job of holding a lethargic evening together. Playing a modernized Guenevere, Soo sings well but comes off like Mean Girls villainess Regina George in a velvet dress. Similarly, Trench’s Mordred seems to be channeling South Park’s Eric Cartman. Faring the best on stage is Donica’s Lancelot, whose soaring baritone makes a meal out of the show’s best element — Frederick Lowe’s gorgeous score.

Let’s Have a Moment

Lancelot and King Arthur engage in a sword fight in 'Camelot.'
Jordan Danica, left, Andrew Burnap, and the company of ‘Camelot.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

The usually brilliant Sher’s staging is mainly static; however, he interjects some much-needed action into the exposition-heavy first act through exciting duels thrillingly choreographed by fight director B.H. Barry. The sound of clanking swords in scenic designer Michael Yeargan’s cathedral-like set has the effect of Sanctus bells rung at a Catholic mass meant to wake up the congregation for the consecration of the Eucharist — not a bad thing for an act that runs over 90 minutes.

The Final Word

High-caliber songs like “Where are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “Before I Gaze at You Again,” and “If Ever I Would Leave You” have rightfully worked their way into the American Songbook. And with a vocally talented cast and 30-piece orchestra deftly conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, they’re showcased to their best advantage. I did, however, spot an orchestra member in the pit yawning near the end of Act II, which speaks volumes of the fact that even in the midst of the show’s finest element, Camelot is a snore.

Camelot plays at Lincon Center Theater at the Vivan Beaumont through September 3.

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