Pared-down shows fare well

'Camelot,' 'Parade' are examples of when small is better

While the fully recouped “Hair” and “West Side Story” hum along on Broadway, full-scale musical revivals took a blow this month when “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Ragtime” closed abruptly, losing their entire capitalization after short runs. The radically pared-down “A Little Night Music,” on the other hand, performs at 100% capacity thanks in large part to Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, a starry combo that has made some auds forget, or simply not care, that there are only eight musicians in the pit. Waiting in the Broadway wings is an equally reduced “La Cage aux Folles,” set to open in April, with Kelsey Grammer’s marquee power justifying the $137 ducat for a Cagelle chorus of six and a band of eight.

The incoming “Promises Promises” — cast of 27, orchestra of 18 — joins “Hair” and “WSS” (and LCT’s gorgeously staged “South Pacific” with its discreetly miked 30-piece orchestra) as full-scale offerings in an increasingly bare-bones world of Broadway revivals. They are clearly the exceptions.

And Los Angeles theater offers a similar story of diminution. The local crix, as well as the New York Times, praised a scaled-back “Parade” that recently played the Mark Taper Forum. Rob Ashford’s production, borrowed from his Donmar Warehouse staging, put 13 actors onstage, down from 35 in Hal Prince’s 1998 Broadway original at Lincoln Center. And now comes the Pasadena Playhouse’s “Camelot,” a work that has never received a full-scale Broadway revival despite a few star-laden national tours (with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Robert Goulet, respectively) having briefly passed through Gotham over the years.

Pasadena’s extremely low-tech, low-concept and very underpopulated “Camelot” may be the proverbial exception that proves the rule. While most pocket tuners simply provide an excuse to make a classic stageable in today’s economics, the Pasadena “Camelot” succeeds precisely because the show itself never really has worked in its larger scale. Director David Lee (a vet of such TV faves as “Cheers”) may have found a secret that could yield success for other beautifully scored but book-troubled tuners: keep it short, keep it lean, let the music carry the night.

Lee’s lessons on “Camelot” and others could be of interest to stock and amateur impresarios. At a breakneck two hours and 15 minutes, this eight-actor (who needs a chorus?) revival clocks in 30 minutes shorter than the 1960 Broadway production that famously starred Burton, Goulet and Julie Andrews. While Lee’s approach has solved several problems with the show, there would be a whole other set of challenges if his staging ever materialized on Broadway.

L.A. critics had a mixed reaction to this “Cam-e-less” and the major obstacles to New York could be the Gotham crix, who tend to view musicals as plays with music (as if that latter ingredient were a secondary component).

Clearly, Lee has taken a page from the Encores! concerts and kept only a page or two of dialogue between each of the songs. He even finds the time to restore a couple of tunes — “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness” — that fell by the wayside after ailing director Moss Hart, equally ailing book writer-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and oddly disengaged composer Frederick Loewe rethought the show in the wake of bad reviews. (That December, Varietys legit headline complained: “Another Blah B’way Season.”)

Lee has called “Cam-elot” “a rather small tale about the rela-tionship between three human beings.” Which recalls Trevor Nunn’s pronouncement that “A Little Night Music” is really a “chamber musical.” Which recalls director John Dexter’s “chamber opera” comment regarding “Aida” when the Metropolitan Opera, in one of its recession modes, presented his very scaled-back (and ugly) staging of the Verdi masterpiece in 1976. In fact, it doesn’t get much grander than “Aida,” and the same could be said for “Camelot” on Broadway.

But while grand is the essence of Verdi’s opera with its marches, temple installations and processionals, the big ensemble moments in the Lerner & Loewe tuner are, arguably, its weakest. But its solos and duets are as good as Broadway gets, including “Camelot,” “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” and, of course, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” an aria so exquisite that Puccini could’ve claimed it for his own.

In one major respect, a tuner like “Camelot” takes much guff from legit crix, whose opera comrades give a pass to an equally flawed work when staged at the Met. Take Puccini’s “La Boheme,” perhaps the most performed opera of the past century. When Baz Luhrmann brought it to Broadway in 2002 (with 28 musicians, compared with the Met’s 83), there was some critical headscratching in the aisles regarding its lovers, Mimi and Rodolfo, who fall out of love offstage, much as Guenevere and Lancelot fall in love during the intermission.

Luhrmann couldn’t “fix” Puccini, but Lee has worked a neat piece of staging legerdemain by keeping his Guenevere and Lancelot onstage, in the background, during Arthur’s solo “How to Handle a Woman.” It gives the piece an intriguing subtext and, more important, prepares us for the queen’s romantic conversion when she later witnesses Lancelot’s jousting miracle.

Crix tend to like the fact that these pocket tuners excise lavish sets and costumes, as if the excess visual fat has been removed to expose the meat of the show. That’s not always the case: Take away the excitement in “Parade” of Prince’s original crowd scenes, marching bands and big floats and banners, and Ashford (and the audience) are left with the grim tale of the Leo Frank lynching, with no public trappings to contrast or to throw into relief the private human drama.

Camelot,” sans its royal glitz, actually plays better. However, it is by no means suddenly perfect. While Lee’s simple staging of the joust is clever, Lancelot’s rescue of Guenevere remains confusing, and suddenly this ill-begotten love triangle is reunited only to say goodbye, and the show is over. It’s all a bit abrupt.

There is no critical consensus. In his upbeat Daily Variety review of Jan. 18, Bob Verini goes back to “The Fantasticks” to find a predecessor for Lee’s traveling-troupe play-within-a-play structure. Guenevere (Shannon Warne) wears a long rehearsal skirt, Arthur (Shannon Stoeke) and Lancelot (Doug Carpenter) are dressed in khakis and jeans, respectively, and the three of them are rarely offstage. But in his mixed Los Angeles Times review, Charles McNulty writes, “Lee demonstrates that ‘Camelot’ doesn’t need the usual frou frou. But a bare-bones approach can throw into relief fundamental flaws.”

First off, more than ever, the show needs three great singer-actors. And with the emphasis now weighted so heavily to the songs, 13 musicians in the pit doesn’t cut it.

Camelot” is a lot like King Arthur’s mythical kingdom, and even under Lee’s corrective direction, it remains a great, messy musical. But if total perfection is what you’re after, stick to short stories or poetry, and leave musical theater to the dreamers.

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