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Camelot Still Retains its Power to Move Us

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Check out our interview with director Richard Stafford.

The set-up: With all due respect to Stephen Sondheim, is there a wittier, more sophisticated, cleverer Broadway musical lyricist than Alan Jay Lerner? He's what the old-timers would call a "wordsmith." And, boy, he is that -- forging together themes, a show's tone, its period flavor, appropriating character into the song, and then making everything rhyme.

Wedded to his marvelous lyrics for Camelot (1960) are those scrumptious melodies by Frederick Loewe. Not since their last phenomenon, My Fair Lady (1956), had a musical's songs had such quality, wit, and rightness about them. But a show must have a book, and Lerner supplied the this glorious-to-hear musical with a gigantic ho-hum.

Cobbled together from Arthurian legends and T.H. White's "The Once and Future King," it's an unwieldy tapestry with too many competing panels. Individually, they're all colorful and nicely detailed, but when put together you don't know where to look. Originally, the show was in trouble ever since the out of town previews where it ran a boggling four-and-a-half hours. Cutting down the fat invariably led to cutting some of the muscle, and the show has never recovered from such drastic weight loss.

The execution: This new production presented by Theatre Under the Stars is the zippiest of all I've seen, a sprightly medieval pageant with the fastest tempi around. This seems to help, for we don't have time to think -- just listen.

Act I is still the best, with Arthur and Guenevere (Robert Petkoff and Margaret Robinson) meeting cute, growing into marriage and love, and Arthur fixated upon ruling well and overseeing the creation of "chivalry" with his round table. There's still the problem with the comic Gilbert & Sullivan-esque King Pellinore (Tony Sheldon), who arrives at the castle in the fog and never leaves; while the droll character of Merlin (Charles Krohn), quickly seduced by enchantress Nimue (Patricia Noonan), disappears almost as soon as he's introduced in Scene One, leaving a big hole in the proceedings.

Things go out of whack in Act II where a lot of exposition must be covered: the queen and Lancelot (Sean MacLaughlin) spend a lot of time mooning with no accompanying action, but there's the fortunate arrival of wicked Mordred (Adam Shonkwiler) to kick start the show anew. He's the inappropriate illegitimate son of Arthur, who apparently has had a dalliance way before he "quails and quakes...banging his royal knees" at the sight of young Guenevere.

Chunks of dialogue have been removed for this production which speeds things up considerably, but sometimes what remains are nebulous connections between the beautiful songs; we have to fill in the blanks, or else the time's filled in by innocuous, unmemorable choreography provided by director Richard Stafford. A "jester" has been affixed to the entire show, cartwheeling and preening, trailing his motley. A little of him goes a long way.

Designer John Iachovelli's physical production looks great, with the requisite tapestries, romanesque arches, and pennants and goblets easing the eye, and Marcy Froelich's costumes are all shimmering velvets and sparkly armor. Needless to say, the original's huge chorus has been pared down, and the ubiquitous amplification sounds tinny and cramped, but the show moves impressively with the finely crafted leading roles.

Petkoff channels his inner Richard Burton, speak/singing his songs, but his Arthur matures nicely from antic schoolboy to melancholy ruler. Robinson adds a lovely giddy quality to young Guenevere, hopping about with glee in "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood," and ages gracefully into the part of almost-adulterer. (In Lerner's version, the illicit lovers share a kiss, and that's all. Doesn't seem like enough evidence to burn her at the stake, but that's Broadway's view of merrie olde English justice.) Her "Lusty Month of May" is a delight, but I do miss her follow-up number "Then You May Take Me to the Fair," where she cajoles the knights to battle conceited Lancelot. One of the show's most lively numbers, and an ironic look into Guenevere's motives, the song was cut a few months into the Broadway run. Lerner tinkered with the show incessantly, trying to get it right.

MacLaughlin, looking like Basil Rathbone during his salad days, is tall and solid as Lancelot. He doesn't have the ringing baritone of original Goulet, but who does? He strikes a romantic figure, plays conceit well, and falls into Guenevere's arms with conviction, if not much passion. The show's biggest hole is convincing us of their mutual admiration. Love at first sight is all well and good, but motive is still essential. Lerner doesn't supply sufficient backstory for Guenevere's conversion; she hasn't been bored, unloved, or neglected that we're told of, and big passion demands something more chaste than one furtive kiss. But they both make an attractive couple.

Compact and muscular, Adam Shonkwiler is an energetic ball of evil as Mordred, using a Scottish burr to set him apart from the enlightened courtiers. He spits out his "Seven Deadly Sins" as if shooting poison. He brings needed spirit into Camelot's peaceful kingdom.

The verdict: The show still retains the power to move us, thanks largely to Loewe's atmospheric music and Lerner's sublime way with words. If the show's not quite as magnificent as it could have been, there's still plenty of rousing numbers, love songs, and ditties to keep this musical glowing. TUTS adds enough wool to keep this tapestry looking like new. Lerner and Loewe's medieval musical tapestry billows brightly through February 3 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at TUTS.com or call 713-558-8887. $24-$125.

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