Around the year 1960, two Camelots opened to acclaim on the east coast: one in Washington DC and the other on Broadway. While JFK and family were getting ensconced in the White House and beginning to create their heralded “Camelot era,” the Lerner and Lowe production of Camelot was raising the curtain in New York City.
This tuneful show, based on the King Arthur legend and not nearly as funny as Spamalot, is now on stage at the Mercury Theatre Company. It’s a huge and gangly piece of work (the original out-of-town tryout back in the day ran more than four hours), and it still has vestiges of too many words, too many stories. But the Mercury troupe under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault manages to wrestle it to a draw while finding bits and pieces of the magic that has enthralled many audience members for decades.
The musical is a love triangle wrapped up in courtly manners and the idealistic dreams of uncertain Arthur, a King who wants to revamp the code of knighthood so that might serves right. He is about to be married to Guenevere, a girl who prefers a plain and simple life herself. They’re an odd couple for sure, but their path to a happiness is complicated when Lancelot, a French stud with a huge ego, appears and immediately turns off Guenevere. But after Lancelot defeats three knights in jousting and then appears to bring one back to life, she reconsiders her affections and starts getting chummy with Lance.
Lathered with the wonderful Lerner and Lowe tunes (“If Ever I Would Leave You,” “C’est Moi,” “The Lusty Month of May,” and the title song), the show is a treat for the ears. In this staging, the actors play all the instruments, with three pianos doing yeoman duty. And that works well for the most part, even though there are more than a few squeaky off-notes as some of the actors try to negotiate their choreography while blowing into horns and plucking guitars.
In the role of King Arthur, Roderick O’Toole is a rather thin and fidgety King, which works fine for this conflicted character at times. But he lacks the vocal and physical presence necessary to put Arthur at the center of all the action. Instead, attention swings towards Taylor Short, a fine singer who fashions a lusty Guenevere, and Robert Head, who comes on strong and alpha-dominant as Lancelot.
Much of the humor is provided by Brian Marshall, who makes King Pellinore, an old friend of Arthur’s family, into a hilarious old coot. The villainy, such as it is, is supplied by Tyler Coy as Mordred, Arthur’s scheming illegitimate son. In this version, Mordred’s partner in evil, his sorceress aunt Morgan le Fey, has been dispensed with, along with a couple of songs.
With most of the action centered on a raked platform, Brault has brought the grand spectacle of the Arthurian court down to an economy size. And as seen at the final dress rehearsal, this more intimate focus, with the jousting scenes done in silhouette with toy horses, seems to capture some of the wit and magic of this familiar legend.
Curiously, both Camelots ended in 1963: one with flagging ticket sales and the other in a burst of bullets. That left us all wishing and hoping for a real Camelot where "there's a legal limit to the show here," and where armies would actually use their might only for just causes. Ah, if there were only such spot…as Camelot.
Through July 25 at Mercury Theatre Company, Notre Dame College, 1857 S. Green Road, South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatrecompany.org