King Arthur tarries in a forest, seeking advice from a kindly old wizard who calls His Highness by the unregal nickname of Wart. Later, the king presides over his court, revealing in the splendor of it all, and in the affection of his good Queen Guenevere and his best friend, Lancelot.
But a shadow hangs over these comfortable scenes -- the knowledge that someday this wise monarch will have to fight the man he loves for the woman he loves. And this dark certainty lends tension and weight to the otherwise merry, melodic, romantic, often downright hilarious musical called "Camelot."
Twenty years has passed since Richard Burton made his musical debut in the original production of "Camelot," which won him a Tony award and established him as an all-round stage personality as well as a promising Shakespearean star. In the intervening two decades his theatrical appearances have been much rarer than his movie roles, but the stage has stayed in his blood.
The current revival of "Camelot" is scheduled to play six other American cities when its triumphant New York engagement ends. It has even been suggested that this reprise of a beloved past role is Burton's way of preparing for an altogether different challenge -- a return to Shakespeare with a long-awaited portrayal of "King Lear."
This is speculation, however. What's certain is that Burton was born to play Lerner and Loewe's King Arthur. Naturally, his 1980 interpretation has a certain maturity -- this Arthur is a rather mellow monarch, an innovative statesman rather than a wild-eyed reformer. But this doesn't slow down the show. Instead, it lends depth and conviction to our hero's campaign for civil war in Camelot, and it lends avuncular charm to his own character.
It also reinforces the delightful fact that Arthur is never the sole centerpiece of the evening. As gentle Guenevere and self-applauding Lancelot, Christine Ebersole and Richard Muenz have starry eyes, attractive demeanors, and forceful presences that are little short of ideal.They also sing circles around the almostm omni-talented Burton, which somehow makes us love all three of them the more.
The smaller roles are handled with similar skill. Paxton Whitehead's Pellinore is a shaggy dog of a king, a walking cartoon whose very armor has a bit of a paunch and an endearing slouch -- though I question the wisdom of having him upstaged by a real shaggy dog on his first appearance in the show. Robert Fox doesn't show up until the second act, but he instantly establishes the slimy menace of Mordred, without a moment of posturing or overplaying. James Valentine also deserves mention for his spirited portrayal of Merlin, the sage who "youthens" while other people age.
The sets and customes by Desmond Heeley are fully as splendiferous as the lighting design by Thomas Skelton, from the sumptuous castle at Camelot to the bleak battlefield near Lancelot's Joyous Gard when a huge moon turns from silver to red, as Guenevere almost meets a fiery death at the stake, the effect is incredibly chilling.
In sum, the current "Camelot" is a kingly entertainment. How many musicals exist where you really get involved in the plot? Where you care about the characters as people, not cardboard vehicles for popular tunes? Where you can't help catching the spirit of a time, a place, and an aspiration -- toward a higher, less barbarous kind of life -- that we can still learn lessons from?
"Camelot" is a long show, and not every scene is as inspired as the next. Yet it remains a lofty standard by which we may continue to measure musicals. Its newest production is a smash. Long may Burton reign.