The Lancelot problem keeps the Arthurian writers and scholars on their toes. According to Thomas (“Tom of Warwick”) Malory, he slavishly follows the Pentecostal Oath; by the time T.H. White gets hold of him, he’s initially ugly and undesirable. And Lancelot’s godlike goodness doesn’t keep him from pursuing an adulterous relationship that kills 100,000 knights as it brings down a kingdom.
As librettist Alan Jay Lerner wrestled a chunk of White’s The Once and Future King into stage-musical shape, he made the dramatically satisfying choice to introduce Lancelot as a self-absorbed buffoon (“C’est moi!”), which unfortunately sets up a trail of inconsistencies to the big ballad (“If Ever I Would Leave You”) and the let’s-get-it-over-with finale.
What’s needed is a strong actor with a strong voice who can radiate charm, and Nathan Gunn gives us all that as well as a goofily appropriate French accent. Camelot well fits the Glimmerglass mission to revisit classic golden-age musicals that are strong on score and, if Lerner and Loewe didn’t hit another My Fair Lady home run with this one, they created a set of songs that became part of America’s musical consciousness during the Kennedy administration, with a cast album that pushed Bob Newhart out of the number-one slot.
Arthur, too, is all charisma as portrayed here by David Pittsinger. We see his youthful side as he spars with his longtime teacher Merlyn (Wynn Harmon) and then meets Guenevere (Andriana Churchman), his chosen-for-him bride-to-be. Musical theater thrives on scenes like this, where mistaken identity gives way to love with a socko title song to boot.
We’re already poised to adore Guenevere, thanks to Churchman’s lovely rendering of “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” even as we make the necessary allowances for what will be an evening of antiquated gender roles.
Even a troublesome show like this glories in an exceptional production; and a simplicity of staging, shrewdly directed by Robert Longbottom, contributed to its excellence.
So did Kevin Depinet’s set, which gave us a rustic-looking deck the boards of which curled up upstage left to suggest a tree, compositionally balanced by an outsized chandelier and the curve of a backdrop on which was painted the fairy-tale castle.
After Guenevere incites a trio of admirers to fight Lancelot (“Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” cut from the Broadway production), which leads to their inevitable defeat and the possibly mortal wounding of one of them—whom Lancelot magically resurrects. That’s enough to provoke a lengthy stage gaze between him and Guenevere, which can only mean love.
But the score, played with gusto by the ever-reliable orchestra under the direction of James Lowe, provides a momentum that drives the show through its creakiest bits. A song like “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” sung by Arthur and Guenevere in the second act, is a number catchy enough to cover up the fact that the pair ought to be discussing (or, to be fair, singing about) more serious issues.
And one of the most glorious aspects of any Glimmerglass production is that it’s unamplified. Unlike Broadway and most other musical theater productions, we’re treated to actual voices that give the singers and actual presence and invite the audience that much further into the faux-reality of the piece.
We need comic relief as the plot groans on: it’s King Pellinore (Harmon again), who cuts a kind of Terry-Thomas figure. But with such moral grey areas cropping up as the love triangle provides, we need a villain. His entrance, though foreshadowed early on, is delayed until the second act to give it a needed boost.
Mordred, played with ferocious gusto by Jack Noseworthy, gets the best song of the show—“Fie on Goodness!”—inspiring the knights to give up their too-noble ways.
Those knights and the female chorus are drawn from the festival’s Young Artists program, and showed an excellent ensemble sense characterized by distinctions of character, which fills out the piece most effectively. And the dance numbers, choreographed by Alex Sanchez, were very nicely realized.
We’ve come a long way in terms of musical theater sophistication since this show, but we should be grateful that Glimmerglass can give us the kind of production that points up its many strengths.