Camelot the musical has been around for quite some time, with the original Broadway production opening in December of 1960. In 1967, a film adaptation was made, starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave in the lead roles. Now, playwright Aaron Sorkin has arrived to inject playful zippiness into the dialogue. Updating a classic is always a risky move, especially when straightforward revivals are easily safer and more plentiful. Camelot was maybe not the most obvious of theatre productions to reconfigure, yet Sorkin’s book and stunning lead performances make this truly next level. Fresh off his much-deserved Tony win for queer epic The Inheritance, charismatic Andrew Burnap fills the chainmail of King Arthur, whilst Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo is note-perfect as doe-eyed beauty, Guenevere.
As soon as I arrived to my seats at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, Camelot immediately immersed me into its beauty. Falling snow and a barren tree set the stage for what is to come. With minimal staging and a massive, varied screen that portrays all manner of different environs, the show falls into its storybook aesthetic with ease. As knights bemoan a princess that has seemingly abandoned her carriage, a sassy Merlyn (Dakin Matthews) leads the hunt for King Arthur, whom he claims is off pheasant hunting. Burnap’s ladder-stage entrance is dramatic, and recalls Romeo or Tony in West Side Story. Almost immediately, Arthur bemoans the woes of love and being “scared” of kingly duties in the cutesy “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?”
Guenevere comes up from the audience, which was the second indicator that the unique staging of Camelot would utilize this tactic quite frequently. Certainly, it remains dynamically used and always fun, leaving one feeling immersed in the action. Guenevere, aiming to flee without marrying the king, sings of “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood.” Soo’s classical Broadway vocals blend beautifully against Burnap’s crooning modernity in their first duet together, the titular “Camelot.” The show begins charmingly enough as it presents Guenevere in a complete opposite characterization than expected—this is a Guenevere who suggests that King Arthur may not have pulled the sword from the stone by some grand act of fate, but rather because Excalibur was merely “loosened.”
The show depicts the passing of time as well on its screens, easily changing settings and time periods with the drop of a hat. Lest one not pay attention, there could be vital details missed. I am admittedly not overtly familiar with the original structuring of Camelot; it nevertheless is a bit jarring to skim right over the royal wedding, just as Guenevere was having her doubts about staying to wed the king. Their marriage has the end goal of uniting England with France, so should it fall apart, so too could Arthur’s grand gesture for “peace.” The introduction of Lancelot (Jordan Donica) makes the story into something of a love triangle. I was far more convinced at Guenevere’s chemistry with Arthur than this new brooding deep-voiced knight.
Gorgeous costuming is an obvious highlight, and the lovely orchestral score that accompanies the majority of the show fully immerses the viewer in the action at hand. I could not take my eyes off either Burnap or Soo during every sequence. Unique almost octagon-shaped structure helps to frame the action, and both actors’ outwardly emotive, expressive faces shape their characters and motivations. Having seen The Inheritance several times on Broadway, it was impossible not to notice that Burnap injects his signature Toby Darling hairflip into this version of King Arthur. Chemistry between Guenevere and Arthur is particularly potent in the second act, wherein their love story comes to a pointed, heart-wrenching conclusion.
Previous versions of Camelot feature plenty of sorcery and magic, but here in Sorkin’s vision of Camelot, the locale may be certainly be magical, but it does not contain a modicum of the supernatural. In act two, Arthur’s bastard, the unusual, outwardly creepy Mordred (Taylor Trensch) shows up to serve as the show’s de facto villain. More grounded and grim than its opening would suggest, there are sword-battles and intricate choreography waiting just around the corner. There is still something comforting and antiquated about the style of Camelot—certainly, it lacks the big fireworks or energetic numbers of its modern musical counterparts. Yet, I could not help but fall for its simplistic charms and excellent ensemble cast.
Open up the doors of a whimsical storybook-version depicting the Knights of the Round Table with Camelot, now playing performances at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.