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How to handle a woman:
Brent Barrett and Glory Crampton in Camelot
(Photo: © Jerry Dalia)
Any new production of the 1960 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical Camelot must find a way to deal with the musical's legacy: the brilliant performance of its glorious score as enshrined forever on the original cast recording; the show's significance to the John F. Kennedy administration; its help in ushering in the era of megamusicals; even its difficult tryout period and post-opening changes. To this day, the quality of the work is frequently questioned. Happily, the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Camelot allows the show to be seen as the dramatically vibrant and musically thrilling classic it is.

It's director-choreographer Robert Johanson's devotion to telling the story that makes this Camelot fly. By turns, this production is exciting, chilling, and heartbreaking, with nary a major misstep to be found. Johanson treats the show as if it were the equivalent of first-rate Shakespeare, and that's basically how it plays. The story is timeless, relevant today with its object lessons about the benefits and dangers of legislating morality. It it also very familiar, with its tale of King Arthur, the knights of his Round Table, and the devastating love affair between Arthur's wife, Guenevere, and his most trusted friend and comrade, Lancelot, known to all; yet Johanson approaches Camelot as if for the first time, searching out its levels and shadings and working to clarify each moment. His choices are occasionally obvious -- much of the action takes place on a large circular platform dead center -- but he almost always succeeds at finding the work's emotional core.

In just under three hours (with an intermission), the story of Arthur (Brent Barrett), Guenevere (Glory Crampton), and the French knight Lancelot (Matt Bogart) is laid out from its hopeful beginning to its tragic end, incorporating complex political philosophy and romantic entaglements along with humor and songs. Lerner's book, based on T. H. White's The Once and Future King, covers all of these bases; the disappearance of one major character (Arthur's teacher, Merlyn, played by the ever-brilliant George S. Irving) and the introduction of another (Arthur's illegitimate son, Mordred, played by Barrett Foa) are events that at first seem minor but eventually assume titanic importance. The show is long -- the first act alone runs 90 minutes -- yet it never drags here.

The physical production is opulent. Michael Anania's stage-filling sets depict forests, castles, courtyards, and even a battlefield or two; Thom Heyer's costumes are colorful and sumptuous; and F. Mitchell Dana's lighting is nature-inspired yet other-worldly. But the performers are not upstaged by the production values. Perhaps there have been better-sung Arthurs than Brent Barrett's, but it's difficult to imagine anyone bringing quite the same robust musicianship to the role that he does. And if Barrett lacks the Shakespearean chops of the role's originator, Richard Burton, his acting talent is formidable; he's consistently regal, yet handles the difficult transitions from youthful idealism to world-weary acceptance with ease. Few musicals have the audacity to end both Act I and Act II with drama-heightening speeches instead of songs, but Camelot does, and Barrett hits both of those moments right out of the park.

As Guenevere, Glory Crampton sings well throughout and acts her later scenes with a heartfelt truthfulness suggesting the changes in the character, but some overly wry line readings mar her earlier scenes; throughout most of the first act, the script requires a less mature and experienced Guenevere than the one Crampton plays. Matt Bogart's Lancelot is well sung but given to distracting posturing and indicating; to boot, the French accent he employs in the role is somewhat laughable, when he remembers to use it. As is the case with Crampton, Bogart seems most comfortable in the later scenes, managing to make Lancelot sympathetic even if his righteous nature feels affected earlier on.

The girl gets around:
Matt Bogart and Glory Crampton in Camelot
(Photo: © Jerry Dalia)
As to the supporting cast: Barrett Foa tends to overplay Mordred's solo number, "The Seven Deadly Virtues," but is still effective as the spoiled brat yearning for power. Irving is comically and dramatically ideal as both the wise Merlyn and the doddering King Pellinore, an old-school counterpart to Arthur's brave-new-world philosophy. Nimue, the ethereal nymph who spirits Merlyn away, is beautifully vocalized by Diane Veronica Phelan, and Tara Lynne Khaler's sweet-toothed Morgan Le Fey is memorable despite her brief appearance.

The nearly flawless score is engagingly and effectively presented here, with Tom Helm serving as musical director. The songs everyone knows, such as "Camelot" and "If Ever I Would Leave You," will not disappoint. But be prepared for the nail-biting drama of "The Jousts," the encroaching doom of "Fie on Goodness," and the taut battlefield epic "Guenevere," which covers more plot than any song should ever have to. Even the orchestral piece that underscores Arthur's "Proposition" speech at the end of Act I leaves an indelible impression. (For those who are wondering, only small cuts have been made in the music and lyrics, including the trimming of the overture and the first act "May" dance plus one or two verses of one or two songs. Nearly everything else is here, including "The Persuasion" and "Then You May Take Me to the Fair.")

The production isn't perfect. Aside from Johanson's frequently trite choreography and pacing that could be even quicker than it is, he has a tendency to give his actors specifically modern, vulgar, indicative gestures that comment on the action more than support it. While this is distracting and unnecessary, it can't keep Paper Mill's Camelot from being a charming jewel of a show to welcome in the spring. In the grand scheme of time, this production may be with us for one brief, shining moment, but its majestic sparkle is welcome while it lasts.

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