Alan Jay Lerner once told me that during 1960 rehearsals for “Camelot,” he was petrified that the play would fail, moaning, “My God, it has no damn humor!” Lerner would have been delighted to see the Hollywood Bowl version, because director Gordon Hunt, star Jeremy Irons and a superb cast have brought a fast, funny and lighthearted flavor to his musical adaptation of T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King.” Rather than a one-night-only show, this production deserves a long run.
Watching a musical once regarded as a major disappointment in comparison with Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady,” one can see that the memorable songs are the equal of those from that 1956 masterpiece. “Camelot” stayed on Broadway for more than two years; the score album spent more than 150 weeks on the U.S. chart — six at No. 1 — and John Mauceri’s Hollywood Bowl Orchestra interpretation of Robert Russell Bennett’s arrangements in the orchestra reinforced their harmonic magnificence.
Irons skillfully maintained the tradition of talk-singing established by Yul Brynner, Robert Preston, Rex Harrison and the production’s original Arthur, Richard Burton. As an actor, Irons gave an exhilarating contemporary relevance to his speech “Violence is not strength — compassion is not weakness.” In addition, he invested the part with a boyish vulnerability that made him a warmly appealing figure.
Irons’ Arthur, a man used to relying on advice from wizard confidante Merlyn (Orson Bean, looking impressive in Lisa Ann Hill’s flowing, gold-embroidered robes), expressed ingratiating insecurity, singing, “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight.” Irons gave a perfect reading to the line “He’s scared,” when confronted with the nerve-wracking last-minute prospect of meeting his new bride, Guinevere (Melissa Errico).
Errico was an inspired choice for the part. When Arthur said, “I won’t touch you,” Errico’s Guinevere countered with hilarious female vanity, “Why not?” and called this “respectful, polite, despicable behavior.” Errico did a magical rendition of “I Loved You Once in Silence,” and her approach throughout skipped sweetness and utilized a playful, yet admirably powerful tone.
The part of Lancelot (James Barbour), the knight who reveres his king but can’t control his passion for Guinevere, was a challenging one, as Barbour initially had to be “overbearing and pretentious,” as well as a loyal, courageous character. He potently projected those warring elements in Lancelot’s nature. Barbour’s strutting version of the narcissistic “C’est Moi” was one of the production’s high spots, and his directly virile approach and red-blooded singing voice were excitingly showcased on “If Ever I Should Leave You.”
Rhythmic variety is one of the score’s strong points, and Kay Cole’s choreography delightfully accented the ebullience of the upbeat “The Lusty Month of May.” Cole was also in peak form with “What Do the Simple Folks Do,” in which Irons and Errico sat on chairs and let their feet do the talking with a joyful, cleverly conceived dance.
As three faithful knights who attempt to vanquish Lancelot at the queen’s request, Kevin Earley, Thomas Ian Griffith and Anthony Meindl sang splendidly and brought vigorous comedic energy to their parts. Malcolm Gets, playing the darkly villainous Mordred, supplied a rousingly energetic “Fie on Goodness,” and Paxton Whitehead excelled as Arthur’s wise and witty friend.