Camelot: Knight Errors
It's always tricky reviewing musicals or plays in the early-preview time frame. You realize that many of the acting and directing choices might be adjusted and even completely changed before opening night. saw the Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Camelot on March 15, about one week into previews. So for the purposes of fairness, I'm not going to criticize some of the acting or directing choices that I think need improvement.
They could improve ... or not. However, the biggest issue with this revival is something I don't see improving. That would be Aaron Sorkin's new book for the Lerner and Loewe musical. It was so wrong-headed, so ill-conceived, that a few days later I'm still in shock at how bad it was. By the way, as a disclaimer: I love Sorkin's work. I loved The Social Network and To Kill a Mockingbird. I also enjoy Bart Sher's revivals of classic musicals. My Fair Lady was mostly wonderful, South Pacific was all wonderful.
This is why the evening's failure was so depressing. Where do I start? First of all, the first act runs 1 hour 45 minutes, which is roughly the same as the first act of Parsifal. The show is 3 hours 10 minutes overall. This gives you an idea of how much talking Sorkin has the characters do. Second of all, Sorkin's book has no idea what it wants to be. Most of the first act has a sort of sitcom-y humor about rulers and politicians that is Camelot's West Wing. Then there's a switch into the inevitable Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle. The third act becomes a dark rumination on war that resembles All Quiet on the Western Front.
Everyone has a new backstory. Arthur is just a regular bloke who one day pulled the Excalibur Sword out of the rock, and thus became king. He's very socially conscious and aware that it was the previous attempts that "loosened the sword," so of course he wears his power with humility. Guinevere (called "Jenny" in this version) is a feminist who never wanted to marry. Arthur is guilty that he chose such a reluctant bride, so the marriage is never consummated (???) and he pushes Jenny away by calling her a "business partner." Enter "Lance"-lot. Jenny and Lance glower at each other a lot in the first act because they're in lust? Note: people have told me now that they were also called Lance, Jenny and Pelly in the original version. Which ... okay, my bad. It doesn't mitigate the serious problems with the Sorkin book.
The second act introduces Mordred, Arthur's illegitimate son. In this production, he's a Ramsay Bolton-lookalike sociopath. His mother Morgan LeFay is in Sorkin's reimagining a Marie-Curie-like scientist. Jenny and Lance give into their passion, but it turns out Arthur and Jenny have secretly loved each other all along, but Arthur was afraid of expressing this because of issues of consent. Everyone goes to war, everyone dies, but (in a rare nod to the original book) a young boy named Tommy will tell the story. And so for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.
I don't have a problem with modernized re-imaginings of ancient myths. But they have to have internal consistency. Into the Woods, Hamilton -- they both retell familiar stories in a modern way, but both have incredible consistency. For instance, in Hamilton, the conflict between Burr and Hamilton is articulated from their first interaction. Burr says "Talk less, smile more. Don't let them know what you are against and what you are for." History and character conflict are introduced in a seamless, organic way. Lin Manuel Miranda was sitting a few rows in front of me, and I couldn't help but wonder what he really thought of this misguided effort.
In contrast, Sorkin's Camelot has no consistency. It lurches between different moods and genres, all the while with the operetta-like Lerner and Loewe songs in the background. The conflicts do not seem organic -- trying to make this myth conform to 21st century ideas of democracy, sexual consent, power, and war just frankly come across as preachy and didactic.
It's a shame because there's a ridiculous amount of talent onstage. Phillipa Soo (Guinevere/Jenny) has a soaring soprano and a winning stage presence that won't be a surprise to anyone who saw her as Eliza in Hamilton and Cinderella in Into the Woods. Her voice is heavenly. Andrew Burnap is so charming and winning as Arthur that he almost makes the preachy, enlightened-ruler Sorkin book work. Jordan Donica (Lancelot) has the least to do character wise, but his deep baritone does make "If Ever I Would Leave You," and "I Loved You Once in Silence" appropriately dreamy. Dakin Matthews was funny as Pellinore and Taylor Trensch (Mordred) made the most out of his Ramsay Bolton imitation.
So there are good reasons to see this show. And Lerner-and-Loewe's music is very beautiful. I also understand that the original musical's book was considered problematic. But the Sorkin book just drags this evening down like a lead balloon. This is not a knight errant, but a knight error.