Nathan Gunn in Camelot
(© Chris Lee)
Nathan Gunn in Camelot
(© Chris Lee)
In most classic musicals, there's one moment that the audience breathlessly awaits. In Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1960 re-telling of the Arthurian legend, Camelot, now being given a luxurious and mostly effective concert staging by Lonny Price and the New York Philharmonic, that moment is surely Lancelot's "If Ever I Would Leave You," his declaration of eternal devotion for Guinevere (Marin Mazzie), his lady love -- and wife of his best friend, King Arthur (Gabriel Byrne). And without question, it is the crowning moment of this production, thanks to the suavely romantic rendition given by the impossibly handsome and vocally remarkable Nathan Gunn.

Indeed, this Camelot proves that Gunn -- much like his fellow opera singer and Lincoln Center neighbor Paulo Szot (of South Pacific) -- is not only more than a pretty face; he is one of the new breed of opera singers who can actually act. From his first entrance as the conceited Frenchmen -- complete with a convincing Gallic accent -- to his final exit as the morally and spiritually defeated knight, Gunn's Lancelot proves, rather shockingly, to be the emotional fulcrum of an otherwise unbalanced triangle.

Fortunately, he's given quite a bit of help by Mazzie, who adds to the roster of indelible stage portraits she's created over the past 15 years. Looking radiant and youthful, and once again showing off her creamy soprano, Mazzie stunningly transforms from girlish maiden to devoted wife to conflicted lover. She has great fun with "Then You May Take Me to the Fair" -- and who wouldn't when your gallant knights are no less than Christopher Sieber, Will Swenson, and Marc Kudisch -- and is gorgeously poignant in "I Loved You Once In Silence."

The fact that both Gunn and Mazzie vocally outclass Byrne is no surprise; although one would have hoped he might have at least learned to master Richard Burton's speak-sing approach to the material, rather than simply act the lyrics while the Philharmonic provides background music. But he never quite rises to the challenge of Arthur. Early on, he's appropriately sensitive as the nervous young king, but never quite proceeds far beyond that characterization. His best scenes are not with Mazzie, but with the slightly daffy King Pellinore (played with considerable comic brio by Christopher Lloyd). Conversely, he establishes little connection in his one scene with the decadent Bobby Steggert (outfitted as if he's auditioning for the road company of Hedwig and the Angry Inch), as his evil, illegitimate son, Mordred.

As might be expected, there's a certain amount of excess rampant here, from the casting of the magnificent Stacy Keach as the magician Merlyn and the deliciously campy Fran Drescher as Morgan La Fey, to the rather large if underutilized chorus (who could enunciate a lot more clearly on "Guenevere"). Choreographer Josh Prince makes nice use of his corps of dancers in "The Lusty Month of May," and the Philharmonic, under Paul Gemignani's direction, sounds wonderful

While the show can still seem dialogue-heavy to neophytes, Price has thankfully streamlined the book considerably. But don't blame him for Camelot's biggest problem: the fact that Lancelot and Guenevere's transition from enemies to lovers takes place in all of two seconds is Lerner's fault (and the show's ultimate undoing). Still, if Gunn had sung "If Ever I Would Leave You" immediately after that scene, instead of having to wait until about 10 minutes into act two, all would have been quickly forgiven and forgotten.