‘Camelot’ Revival at Lincoln Center, Superbly Re-imagined for Our Time
The original 1958 musical Camelot. performed with Alan Jay Lerner’s book and lyrics, and Frederick Loewe’s music, adapts theArthurian legend from T.H. White’s collection of fantasy novels entitled Once and Future King (1958). White’s adaptation was loosely based on the 1485 work Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Aaron Sorkin’s book updates the musical and puts an interesting spin on the events of legend, heightening the characters and shifting the emphasis to King Arthur, superbly portrayed by Andrew Burnap (Inheritance). As a result, Sorkin diminishes the love affair between Phillipa Soo’s Queen Guenevere (Hamilton) and Jordan Donica’s Lancelot du Lac (My Fair Lady), aligning it more with romantic tradition which fails. With outstanding set design and fine direction by Bartlett Sher, Camelot is a stunning revival of symbolic political moment, currently running at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont until September.
At the top of the play Sorkin introduces us to one of the most important aspects of Arthur’s kingdom, the feudalistic power structure and Arthur’s previous isolation from it. Before we even meet Arthur, we meet the lords who serve the king and make up his court, as well as Merlin (Dakin Matthews), Arthur’s counselor, whose wizardry is seen through his balanced demeanor, wisdom, erudition, time transcendence, foreknowledge and keen ability to redirect the perspectives of less enlightened individuals.
Tasked to meet Arthur’s bride-to-be at the top of the hill near the castle, the lords exclaim that her carriage is at the bottom of the hill. We note Merlin’s attributes in his initial discourse with these three knights, Dinadan (Anthony Michael Lopez), Lionel (Danny Wolohan), and Sagramore (Fergie Philippe), who rant that the Guenevere’s carriage has gone against tradition, as they watch her disembark from her carriage far away from them. This change in tradition upsets them, until Merlin uses gentle wisdom to calm their responses and show them they can merely change the law to update tradition. This exchange among the knights and Merlin indicates the conflict to come, tradition vs. progress. The knights’ acceptance of Arthur’s changes is paramount to Camelot’s success.
The ruling elites are conservative traditionalists. But Merlin handles them easily and emphasizes the power of laws to change useless, outmoded ways of being. These men have power and influence over an unequal class system, institutionalized by feudalism (the peasants who serve and the lords who protect and luxuriate over them). Arthur must step around them and gain their trust to overturn traditions which have harmed and caused wars and bloodshed.
Not a member of the royal class per se, Arthur must navigate the knights’ entrenched power with wisdom, if he is to rule his kingdom well and remain effective. This not only requires steadfast courage and acute psychological and personal skills, it demands a political philosophy and will to unite the lords and prevent division. Additionally, training and counsel from Merlin, whose extraordinary gifts of wisdom provide a broader, endowed perspective and understanding, are a boon.
In Sorkin’s different spin of Merlin, we understand that the time has been stepped up one hundred years, so that the medieval age is coming to a close, and Arthur is pushing his kingdom in the direction of the Enlightenment with the help of Merlin. Unfortunately, Merlin’s assistance remains all too brief. After his death, he is replaced by one of the oldest knights in the kingdom, Pellinore, also portrayed by Dakin Matthews, who Guenevere invites in to their circle.
Sorkin advances Arthur’s human graces, contrasting them with the backward knights of his time, who he must manipulate against their own stupidity, which manifests in Act II, encouraged by Mordred (Taylor Trensch) in “Fie on Goodness.” Arthur is not a royal in arrogance, presumption or privilege. He is a people person, decent, kind, likeable and extraordinarily generous. He is more like a Christ-like figure, who forgives Guenevere and Lancelot’s “treason,” and refuses to brutally punish them for their lack of faithfulness.
He invites his son Mordred into his circle, as a reconciliation for his past abandonment, which his mother caused by refusing Arthur’s pleas for her to come and live in the castle. He announces to the kingdom that Mordred is his out-of-wedlock son who is being treated equally like everyone else and has the opportunity to learn and become a knight, if he wishes. But Mordred refuses to listen to Arthur’s explanations why he is not with Morgan le Fey (Marilee Talkington), and he gives lip service to Arthur’s largesse. Instead, Mordred manufactures his own victimization and weaponizes it against his father. Indeed, as the villain, Mordred exploits Arthur’s kindness and love. In his wicked world, these traits are a weakness to set up Arthur’s downfall (“The Seven Deadly Virtues”).
Especially in the characterization of Arthur, Sorkin presents the idealization of a king whose humility, love, intelligence, forgiving nature, and equanimity is all that the Enlightenment promises. Unfortunately, Arthur is a man out of his time, more an influence for future generations in inspired legends and stories of his exploits, frailty and kindness, which can guide by example to bring hope and light to others. Though his reign and Camelot only lasted for for a brief time, the antithesis of the stability and “happy ever aftering” Arthur and Guenevere sing about in the beginning (“Camelot”), is mythic. All individuals, even the current day audience can aspire to Arthur’s ideals of a place of congeniality for persons great and small.
Each of the characters we see immersed in feudalism are lesser in nature, greedy for power, brutal, judgmental, calculating and self-absorbed. In the dialogue to some of the songs, we note Sorkin cleverly magnifies this. For example in the ironic “Simple Joys of Maidenhood” that Guenevere sings about wanting knights to die and sacrifice themselves for her love, Arthur brings up the notion that this isn’t much fun for the knights. Not only is Guenevere naive, she is brutal in her unrealistic romanticism, a clue to the source of her treachery with Lancelot, spawned from her privileged background. Indeed, the same knights that would kill for her, would just as soon end her “maidenhood,” in a rape, which Arthur seems to note in his ironic comment, but Guenevere conveniently ignores.
Guenevere is a traditionalist in all of her “modernity.” A spouse by arranged marriage to prevent war between England and France, she is born of royalty and has the presumption, lack of humility, and fieriness to prove it. Her expectations are royal, and she doesn’t understand Arthur’s personality and hoped for kingdom. Initially, she presumes Arthur will behave according to the traditions of kings, like her father. Kings are sexually promiscuous. They treat women as objects for their pleasure; they make demands on them, requiring they be passive creatures without individuality or autonomy.
That Arthur doesn’t have women at his sexual disposal at court, and expresses belief in the fidelity of marriage is a striking and revelatory contrast. Additionally, he fosters the novel idea they must prevent fighting, war, bloodshed, abuse of the lower classes and women. Remarkably, he gladly accepts her input of ideas. It is during their discussions that the “knights of the round table” come into being. In this acceptance of Guenevere as his ruling partner, he reveals that he is dynamically striding toward enlightened governance.
Appealing to her better nature constantly, Arthur trusts her with Lancelot. Ignoring her suggestion, he refuses to expel the narcissistic knight from the kingdom, before they have their momentary affair, which Mordred has “encouraged,” unbeknownst to Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot. Above all, Arthur provides her with freedom and power to rule with him. This is unlike anything that is supposed to happen to a female royal anywhere. And in the musical’s memorable signature song, he imagines his vision of Camelot in order to engage her to want to be Queen, and woo her, before she knows his identity.
In retrospect, at the conclusion of the musical, we learn it is his intentions of good will toward her that prompts Guenevere to fall in love with him early on. However, since both of them are unpracticed at love, they never express it to each other. It is one of Arthur’s chief weaknesses of pride. Ironically, he fails at his own express thoughts in “How to Handle a Women,” and doesn’t love her, so that she understands his love, understands that his freedom and trust in her are love, decency and generosity in the Arthurian time of patriarchy on steroids. She is still stuck in the romantic notion of love, reinforced by her ladies in waiting, who push romantic tradition on her to her detriment.
Sorkin’s book is deeper and more complex than the original musical, so that before each song, one must catch the nuance. For example the humorous repartee before and after the song, “Camelot,” works beautifully and heightens the ironic, fantastical lyrics, symbolizing the fickleness of the place in its hyperbole, “The snow may never slush upon the hillside, by 9 P.M. the moonlight must appear.” In expressing his metaphor, Arthur encourages Guenevere to realize he is unlike royalty, and his kingdom and reign with her will be unique, maverick, loving. The tragedy is that the depth of their love is unrealized and misunderstood. Guevenere, entrapped by the tradition of her place and status, and Arthur overwhelmed by his sense of inferiority to express his feelings to her, contribute to the fall of the kingdom.
An express, underlying irony is that Arthur’s view and behavior toward women is even more forward thinking than many in the US South today, and especially some of the GOP political party antithetical to equanimity between women and men. Thus, Arthur is not only schooling Guenevere about equanimity and generosity as love, he is also reminding the audience of the beauty of such an approach between men and women for our own time.
Of course, this is legend, and it is hard to come by in reality, which makes the final exchange between Arthur and Guenevere, and their relationship, all the more poignant and tragic. In a failure of her character and bondage to her identity, Guenevere is too late to recognize and receive Arthur’s love and freedom to express it. Instead, she opts out for fleeting passion which is another form of bondage, and is the antithesis of freedom. It is why she regrets her affair with Lancelot, does not run off with him, but goes to a convent. The rest of her life she does penance for contributing to his death, Lancelot’s death, and the destruction of the kingdom.
Phillipa Soo and Andrew Burnap are perfectly cast in their respective roles and are simply smashing in voice, authenticity and aura, making us empathize with their characters who are victims of their own frailties. Burnap, especially at the conclusion, coalesces the poignant tragedy that Arthur’s dreams are broken, and that by a combination of rotten timing, privileged selfishness (by royals Lancelot and Guenevere), bitterness and resentment by an ungrateful Mordred, he is undone and must pay the forfeit with his death.
Jordan Danica’s Lancelot is both funny and dangerous, for we know what is coming when his resistance to Guenevere “protests too much” in selfishness. The right way to serve King Arthur would to leave and escape his lust, which he can’t because of his own self-betrayal. The bedroom scene is perfectly directed to suggest the thrill of passion, but not love. It is appropriate that their “aftermath” falls flat in disgrace, as they realize the import of what they’ve done. Sadly, as the pawns of Mordred, they’ve betrayed their king, and the golden idea which elevated their lives and the kingdom. Interestingly, Donica’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” indicates he can’t leave because of how she “looks” in the changing seasons. If he really loved her, not the image of her and him together, he would have left the moment he sensed the attraction to save her and himself. So much for his boasted purity. To insure his leaving, he would have been truthful with King Arthur. Donica’s voice and interpretation of that song in particular are non pareil, just fantastic.
Sorkin mitigates the “magical” in this Camelot update, palatably. For example it is suggested Arthur is able to pull the sword Excalibur out of the stone because previously, ten thousand men loosened it. Lancelot’s “resurrection” of Arthur occurs because he was just knocked unconscious and not killed. No miracle occurred. Arthur’s characterization is a forerunner of the rational man of the Enlightenment, when Europe will experience many transformations. Then, rigorous scientific, political and philosophical ideas burgeon in the society with the rise of the middle class. In his approach to ruling his kingdom, Arthur is bold to overthrow the most noxious elements of feudalism to bring ideals of equanimity, peace and honor that “might for right” and “justice for all” are the better way.
The thoughtful production has humor, vibrance and poignance. The treachery and resentment of unforgiving Mordred (the fine Taylor Trensch), who helps explode the Camelot ideals of equanimity, peace and honor are a potent reminder that such a “heaven on earth” is impossible because of human fallibility. Thematically, the musical warns us that only in the aspirations of future generations, represented by Camden McKinnon’s Tom of Warwick, may that possibility become reality in limited circumstances.
In the meantime, hope must be kept alive for a time when such dreams are possible. Realistically, all the characters fall from their own grace. It happens with the best of individuals, who cannot govern their own passions, and with the worst who rebel against a more perfect order for the sake of power. Sorkin reminds us in this complex re-imagining that most important is the striving for equity and equilibrium, not the achievement of it, which in itself is too fantastic to sustain. In the striving is the learning and revelation which is priceless. As such they provide the way for the hope of tomorrow, arriving at democratic polity hundreds of years in the future: i.e. a democratic Ukraine in the face of genocidal aggression by Russia, a democratic United States in practice not in lip service.
The sets by Michael Yeargan are suggestive, stylized, minimalist and symbolic, perfect for scene changes to the castle, Arthur’s study, a maypole dance, the tournament and more. Noted the black tree on stage never blossoms or has leaves, regardless of season. At one point the projection of the beautiful Camelot is seen in the distance. However, the tree does have leaves on the program cover as a figure peers out from its branches, and we, like him, wait for a “more perfect union,” and peace, justice and equity for all.
Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are richly appropriate and gorgeous. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design, Marc Salzberg & Beth Lake’s sound design, Cookie Jordan’s hair & wig design cohere to manifest Bartlett Sher’s vision. Projections by 59 Productions are, as usual, marvelous.
I had forgotten how lyrical, memorable and powerfully touching are Lerner and Loewe’s songs and music. “Guenevere” is heartbreaking. Special recognition goes to Kimberly Grigsby’s music direction which does justice to the score. Noted are the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett & Phillip J. Lang, and dance & choral arrangements by Trude Rittmann. These artists, no longer with us, had a prodigious history of creating the beauty of Broadway (Bennett over 300 productions, Lang and Rittmann over 50 productions). Byron Easley’s choreography is energetic in “The Lusty Month of May.” B.H. Barry’s fight direction and the staging/choreography of swordfights of Lancelot proving his mettle with the three knights and Arthur, appear as dangerous as the crashing blades sound.
Camelot runs with one intermission. Every minute is worth seeing. Don’r believe some of the critics. Judge for yourself. For tickets and times at the Vivian Beaumont go to their website https://www.lct.org/shows/camelot/
‘Into the Woods’ Review: Glorious Revival Highlights Sondheim’s Masterwork as Uproariously Funny, Sonorously Poignant
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine and orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Into the Woods is in its brilliant fourth revival on Broadway at the St. James Theatre. This iteration magnifies the greatness of Sondheim’s iconic work with affecting power. Thanks to the cast and creative team, the production is a towering achievement.
Intricately making the complex crystal clear, the creatives have woven fantasy and magic into stylized perfection. The company conveys Sondheim’s sharply, ironic lyrics and Lapine’s clever, comedic book with campy authenticity that befits the tone of the production. All the while the cast twits their characters and performances with sheer abandon and fun.
If fairy tales embody archetypes that float in and out of our unconscious, this Into the Woods reveals how and why. Ancient folklore transfixes us because ultimately, it is immutable and intensely personal. Lapine and Sondheim have given us Into the Woods as a gift of wonder and wisdom and the amazing director (Lear deBessonet), has channeled their vision with grace and beauty that touches our souls.
Transferring from New York City Center Encores!, deBessonet’s metaphoric, symbolic, slimmed down production continues to thrill enthusiastic audiences as it takes them on the familiar roller coaster ride of highs and lows with humor, pathos, and sterling performances by an exquisite cast. The multitalented actors with comic flair portray the indelible Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, the Witch, two Prince Charmings and more. They romp with delight in Act I and with the searing edginess of moment and bitterness, they shed their “happy” in Act II. The two acts encompass the whole of our life’s experience; it is satisfying yet bittersweet as illumination becomes the true prize of living.
This production is bar none fabulous and appropriate thematic fare for young and old who have encountered their share of giants, witches and adventures into dark, foreboding places. The characters’ journey quest is the linchpin to the fulfillment of their dreams, not only returning wisdom and enlightenment, but moving them from innocence to experience. And the music, Sondheim’s soaring melodies are sensational. Presented by the golden-voiced cast and accompanied by The Encores! Orchestra under Rob Berman’s fine direction, the score has staying power that remains with one long after the audience’s raucous standing ovations end at the last curtain call.
Indeed, de Bessonet’s vision of minimalist staging, pared-down scenic design (David Rockwell), spare lighting design (Tyler Micoleau), and Andrea Hood’s unpretentious costume design work beautifully. Without costly extravagances and unencumbered by visual distractions, we are totally focused on the music, lyrics, and acutely spun characterizations portrayed by the actors’ dynamic performances.
For example the settings of the three families (Cinderella’s, the Baker and his wife, Jack and his mother), are suggested with old-fashioned cut-outs of their homes, suspended above their playing area as their family interactions and conflicts unravel. Rockwell’s suspended birch tree trunks suggest the sinister forest of shadowy fears all must confront. Combined with Micoleau’s atmospheric lighting and large evocative moon that rises and falls to “light the way,” the elements summon the surreal and illusive.
Additionally, Andrea Hood’s apt color-coded costumes define each character with particularity and interest. For example she employs primary hues (bright yellow and red jackets), for the comedic, over-the-top Prince Charmings. For the earthy folk heroes with whom we identify, she fashions rosey browns for the Baker and his wife. Their grounded dream to have a baby is one couples might most identify with.
Splendid, spot-on performances by Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife and Brian d’Arcy James as the Baker showcase the common folk and the experiences of marriage. As a beautifully blended husband and wife team who must confront and satisfy Patina Miller’s scary-funny witch to fulfill their baby dream, the actors are in lockstep. Their duet “It Takes Two,” knocks it out of the park. Bareilles’ interpretation of a wife who controls her husband by surreptitiously winding her way around his machismo is brilliant. The audience catches her every nuance, every shrug of the shoulders. For his part D’arcy James’ pretend bravery masking fear is so aptly humorous. And in Act II d’Arcy James “No More,” sung with David Patrick Kelly’s Mysterious Man is heartrending. Our emotions are swept up as we agree there must be an end to the seasons of pain between fathers and sons, parents and children.
The two Prince Charmings, Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry, have choreographed their movements to represent the ineluctable adornments of seduction with verve and just enough hyperbole to make them deliciously palatable and hysterical (“Agony”). The wonderful Phillipa Soo’s dreaming Cinderella who sings her feelings with Bareilles’ Baker’s Wife resonates with beauty and humor (“A Very Nice Prince”). Soo’s awkward, klutzy Cinderella who falls every time she joins the Baker’s wife “lands.” Soo always gets a laugh as the audience appreciates the dreamy, ditzy humanity of this princess-to-be who humiliates herself. Indeed, we also appreciate that Cinderella is much more astute in Act II when the realities of her marriage to the Prince confront her full force.
Julia Lester’s Little Red Riding Hood plays to the audience, breaking the fourth wall with success as one of the most beloved of fairy-tale characters. As Little Red, Lester scarfs down all the treats before she makes it to grandma’s house. Thus, Gavin Creel’s Wolf is all the more satisfied after he scarfs her down. Their scene together is uproarious (“Hello, Little Girl”). Creel’s seducer Wolf is appropriately smarmy which Lester tweaks as the less-than-innocent Little Red, who enjoys tempting him.
Creel does double duty as seducer of the Baker’s Wife. Bareilles’ formerly faithful wife in Act I submits to the wolf Prince Charming in Act II (“Any Moment”), seeking something more. Creel pulls out all stops recalling to our remembrance the wolf metaphor in Act I. Princes and wolves are two sides of the same coin, Sondheim and Lapine intelligently note. And Bareilles’ “Moments in the Woods” is poignant and foreboding. Do Lapine and Sondheim punish the Baker’s wife’s behavior as an adulteress? Interestingly, the Prince’s wanderings receive no such comeuppance. Double standards are ever-present and especially when unlike fairy tales, Act II extends into the consequences beyond the artificial, “happily ever after.”
Jack (the superb Cole Thompson), his mother (Aymee Garcia), and the cow Milky White (the sensational puppeteer Kennedy Kanagawa), form the third household. Thompson’s heartfelt “I Guess This Is Goodbye,” and rousing “Giants in the Sky,” are beautifully rendered. The vibrant “Giants in the Sky” Jack sings to inspire himself with courage to save his family, kill the giant and attain the wealth his mother needs. As Jack, Thompson’s stirring faith and hope resound with triumph.
The Witch is the central figure that eventually brings the company together. Patina Miller lives up to the task with her extraordinary performance before and after her transformation when the curse that holds her from her true nature is broken. We understand her love for Rapunzel (Alysia Velez), in the soulful “Stay With Me,” and the tragedy of her daughter’s loss in Act II in “Witch’s Lament.” Perhaps my favorite is Sondheim’s incredible “Last Midnight,” that she sings with power and all the dynamism she can muster. Miller’s performance of the song is memorable as the claws of the giant’s wife (voiced by Annie Golden), enfold her in destruction. Indeed, also with the last song “Children Will Listen” that Miller sings with the Company, she is just stunning.
In Act II the consequences of apparently naive actions performed without thought converge on the main characters who seek to avoid blame in the wonderful “Your Fault.” However, after the death of the Witch and the Baker decrying “No More,” a bittersweet hope returns in the remaining song, “No One Is Alone,” sung by Cinderella, Little Red, the Baker and Jack, who struggle to encourage each other after their losses. Was the journey worth what it taught the seekers? “Children Will Listen,” sung by the Witch and the entire company brings back to life the spirit of those taken by the Giant’s Wife as they relate the lessons learned. We are uplifted and restored by the illumination.
Kudos and praise go to additional creatives not mentioned before. These include Lorin Latarro (choreography), Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann (sound designers), James Ortiz (puppet designer), Cookie Jordan (hair, wigs & makeup designer), Seymour Redd Press/Kimberlee Wertz (music coordinators).
I have said enough. Go see this marvelous theatrical event which you will not be able to see again with this cast after September 4th. For tickets and times go to their website: https://intothewoodsbway.com/