The stage history of “Camelot” is nearly as legendary as the show’s subject: After tryouts in Toronto and Boston whose troubles were widely reported in the press, the show opened at the Majestic in December 1960 with the largest advance to date in Broadway history — reportedly almost $ 3 million — and a lavish production capitalized at an unheard-of $ 500,000. Though it was received with nearly universal pronouncements of disappointment, “Camelot” certainly did no damage to Richard Burton (Arthur) and Julie Andrews (Guenevere), and it made a star of Robert Goulet (Lancelot).
The chief source of that disappointment was Alan Jay Lerner’s book, which stumbled through T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” mixing up elements of musical comedy, operetta and melodrama. Few disputed that the score Lerner wrote with Frederick Loewe had its share of gems.
The current revival brings Goulet, now playing Arthur, back to Broadway after a long tour, and it has disappointments all its own, beginning with the star.
Goulet’s baritone is still rich, though it’s delivered in the style of an era long past. More important, Arthur’s songs were written to be acted, virtually half-sung, and as an actor, Goulet is a stiff.
His movements are awkward and yet betray a casual regard for the rest of the action onstage, and he gesticulates his way through a song with the misplaced self-assurance of a first-year acting student.
Even cruder is Patricia Kies’ summer-stock Guenevere, though her voice on occasion eerily recalls Andrews’.
And on a plane of incompetence all its own is the Lancelot of Steve Blanchard , who blunders through the part as if he were one of the Dukes of Camelot. He has a rock star’s lengthy blond coif and his work is oddly disjunctive, as if the soundtrack were slightly trailing his movements.
Indeed, Norbert Joerder’s dreary staging seems to have been accomplished via robotic devices. Vanessa Shaw offers a beautifully sung Nimue, and James Valentine has some fun doubling up as Merlyn and the blustery, befuddled king-without-a-kingdom, Pellinore.
Tucker McCrady is a puckish Mordred, which doesn’t quite do the trick. Audiences in 1960 were thrilled by the sets and costumes, to which this tour-on-Broadway pays homage, in a tacky, lotsa-fog-swirling-around-the-stage way.
Despite having cut one song and one role, the show plays sluggishly and without a jot of enthusiasm.
All this will matter little to audiences in search of the familiar, which “Camelot” offers up in spades. Burton found that out when he reprised the role poorly in 1980, as did Richard Harris, who took it over when Burton fell ill.
The stand at the cavernous Gershwin should do quite well with the summer tourist trade. But this production is another tired replication of a show that needs all the commitment its stars can muster.