Gabriel Byrne is one of the finest English-speaking actors of the day, as attested to by his film, television and stage work. In Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot,” the Dublin-born thesp gives full value to the words and thoughts of King Arthur. The trouble is the man can’t sing — or even talk-sing. Byrne’s handicap puts a severe damper on the concert version, in for five performances at the New York Philharmonic’s Avery Fisher Hall and televised Thursday by PBS as part of its “Live From Lincoln Center” series.
“Camelot” may be deemed an accidental classic; the show, forever tied to memories of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, is not (and was never been considered to be) very good. After its troubled tryout, the 1960 premiere stumbled to success on Broadway thanks to two big song hits, some of the most opulent scenery and costumes ever seen and three luminous stars — Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet.
But the material is problematic, with a dismal withering away in the second act. Show starts out as a boy-meets-girl story, but after the inevitable mid-show breakup, the pair never get back together. The authors present Lancelot (the other man) with “If Ever I Would Leave You” to sing, after which one cannot reasonably expect Guenevere to go back to stick-in-the-mud Arthur.
By the time baritone Nathan Gunn as Lancelot got through with “If Ever I Would Leave You” on opening night, half the women in the audience would gladly have escaped to France with him — and many of the men, too. With the romance irremediably busted, Lerner turns to a second-act war, and the “one brief shining moment” of Camelot winds down to defeat and gunfire.
“Camelot” has gotten by, over the years, when a charismatic star can charm his way through the songs. Byrne seems to fit the bill, but at the opening performance, he was often four or more beats away from the band. With no conductor in the pit and no closed-circuit video monitor in sight, Byrne is stranded in a manner that his musically accomplished co-stars are not.
One expects that with more rehearsal and a visible conductor, Byrne could make an exceptional Arthur. But rather than worrying about what would happen in the next scene to Arthur and his “Jenny,” many in the audience were worrying about what would happen in the next song.
The accomplished Marin Mazzie, as Guinevere, may well have been distracted by her co-star, making her performance also somewhat uncomfortable. (In some of the duet sections of “What Do the Simple Folk Do,” Byrne remained silent.)
The crossover hit of the evening is opera star Gunn. When he rears back and sings “If Ever I Would Leave You,” his vocals unleash the very same visceral effect that’s felt across the Lincoln Center plaza when Paulo Szot serves up “Some Enchanted Evening” in “South Pacific.” This is what the Broadway musical of the Golden Age was built upon: the power of a first-rate love song delivered by a first-rate voice. With his strong baritone, good looks and abundant stage presence, Gunn could easily take 45th Street by storm.
Comedic support is provided by the veteran Stacy Keach, as Merlyn; Christopher Lloyd, with some mirthlessly flat material as Pellinore; and Fran Drescher’s Morgan le Fey, who sounds like she comes from behind the counter of the Camelot Diner on the Grand Concourse. One can only imagine how stunned Lerner would be watching Drescher’s burlesque of a performance.
The three minor roles of Sirs Dinadan, Sagramore and Lionel are played with relish by the highly overqualified Christopher Sieber, Will Swenson and Marc Kudisch.
Bobby Steggert plays Mordred in a costume apparently borrowed from “Taboo,” which certainly gives this “Camelot” an interesting look. In a mix of period touches and contemporary evening wear, there’s also a page boy wearing a black kilt and Converse high-tops.
Director-adapter Lonny Price, who is generally expert at this type of venture, seems somewhat defeated by the combination of his ill-starred star and the problematic show. He is not helped in the least by the choreography of Josh Prince, implemented by 10 barefoot dancers in sleeveless red pajamas who generally comport themselves like nymphs, wood sprites and other aerie creatures.
The star of the evening, along with Gunn, is Paul Gemignani, conducting the orchestra onstage. Gemignani has been on a diet of late, restricted to 15-piece bands. The Philharmonic has expanded the original 30-odd musicians by adding more strings than Gemignani can shake a baton at. Under these circumstances, Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang’s lush orchestrations sound especially glorious. (Lang, who did most of the work himself, is unaccountably uncredited in the Philharmonic program.)
“Camelot” is built on its justly acclaimed title song, which buoys the opening and ultimately serves as the show’s epitaph. Byrne makes a game attempt, but on opening night he was so far ahead of the orchestra that the song — and the show — had little impact.