Rachel de Benedet and Lou Diamond Phillips
in Camelot
(© Craig Schwartz)
Rachel de Benedet and Lou Diamond Phillips
in Camelot
(© Craig Schwartz)
The original 1960 Broadway production of Camelot overcame lackluster reviews to run for just over two years, in part because of President Kennedy's fascination for the show -- which he saw as a symbol of his administration -- and in part because of the audience's fascination with stars Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet. The re-cast national tour of Camelot, which has just launched at UCLA's Royce Hall, is more likely to be judged on its own merits, which includes a surprisingly weak Lou Diamond Phillips as King Arthur.

Phillips' often-flat singing and uncharismatic performance isn't the evening's biggest problem, however. Alan Jay Lerner's murky book, based on T.H. White's The Once and Future King, has helped sink many a revival of the musical, with its overemphasis on dialogue and shocking lack of action.

Restless and unfulfilled with his happy life with his beloved Guinevere (Rachel de Benedet), Arthur dreams of really making a difference in the land. He sees a court that governs might for right to protect the disenfranchised and sets about assembling a Round Table of Knights. No sooner does he achieve his utopian vision then it is undermined by his bastard son Mordred (Shannon Stoeke), who arrives to poison Arthur's reputation. Then, things go from bad to worse when his beloved queen falls madly in love with his best friend, Sir Lancelot (Matt Bogart).

It's a good story, but Lerner's book is talky and dense, filled with pontificating soliloquies that would have been more powerfully contained in song. Moreover, while the entire show rushes towards a bloody climax -- a war between Arthur and Lancelot -- when it finally arrives, it is merely sketched upon in one song, "Guinevere." And although the book takes pains to paint the royals as simple folk trapped by circumstances, it ultimately turns them into merely mundane people.

The score, though, is pure magic. Loewe's melodies are haunting, while Lerner's Harvard-educated mind blithely litters about such words as vivisect and congenial and crafts complex lines like "The time for ev'ry frivolous whim, Proper or 'im.'" It's a shame that so many of the songs are performed so badly by Phillips, who sounded hoarse throughout the evening and had trouble with his lower octave. More shockingly, his performance so blended into the background that you wish Arthur would pack it in during the first act and let the lovebirds' fire burn freely for the remainder of the show.

Thankfully, the production is blessed with an excellent pair of lovers. Radiant, with long flaxen hair, pronounced cheekbones, a glimmering mouth with teeth that reflect the stage lights, and twinkling expressive eyes, de Benedet is worthy of every man's obsession. Displaying expert comic timing, she raises her voice an octave when she gets mad and plays the queen impishly, like a high school "mean girl," trying to start fights with Lancelot to hide her attraction.

With his cherubic face, chiseled body, and a light French musical accent, Bogart manages to balance nobility and thickheadedness as Lancelot. When he sings "If Ever I Would Leave You," it's more erotic than a hardcore porn movie. His facial expressions become primal and the hunger between he and Guinevere is so palpable, the audience can practically taste it.

Among the supporting cast, Eric Anderson is sardonically humorous as the warlock Merlyn and Time Winters is an enjoyably oafish King Pellinore. On the downside, Stoeke plays Mordred as a foppish villain who swishes about, swinging his fur-lined cape like an unwilling dance partner.

The orchestra, led by Craig Barna, is crisp. The sets by John Iacovelli give a sprawling effect with faux cobblestone buildings, batik backdrops, and towering trees. Costume designer Marcy Froehlich shows a colorful scheme with velvet capes and banquet-ware, though the baby blue plastic cape Lancelot wears at the Act I finale looks like it was stolen from the closet of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.

Watching this production of Camelot, it's apparent why the show is so rarely revived with complete success -- even with a much better Arthur than Lou Diamond Phillips to guide it.