United Kingdom LMTO – Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot: Soloists, London Music Theatre Chorus and Orchestra / Freddie Tapner (conductor). London Palladium. 6.10.2018. (JPr)
Arthur – David Thaxton
Guenevere – Savannah Stevenson
Lancelot – Charles Rice
Mordred – Sam Swann
Pellinore/Merlyn – Clive Carter
Sir Dinadan – Matthew McKenna
Sir Lionel – Emmanuel Kojo
Sir Sagramore – Oliver Savile
Nimue – Celinde Schoenmaker
Tom – Raphael Higgins-Humes
Director – Shaun Kerrison
Sound Designer – Simon Sayer for Autograph
Lighting Designer – Mike Robertson
I was on my way to see The King and I at the London Palladium recently and said to my wife how the musical I would most love to see and hear again in the theatre would be Camelot. I was astounded to then flick through my programme for that wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein show and discover an advert for the London Musical Theatre Orchestra’s concert performance of … Camelot! I know it is impossible to believe I am old enough(!) but I saw it when it was first put on in London in 1964 with Laurence Harvey as Arthur, Elizabeth Larner as Guenevere and Barry Kent as Lancelot. I have never forgotten it although – apart from the film adaptation and recordings – it has passed me by ever since.
I suppose it is my subsequent interest in all things Wagnerian that has kept my interest in Camelot smouldering, as it is part Lohengrin (without a swan!) and part Parsifal. Indeed – as conductor Freddie Tapner reminded us – the out-of-town try-out in Toronto lasted over four hours! Lyricist Lerner apparently remarked later that ‘Only Tristan and Isolde equalled it as a bladder endurance contest’. According to the LMTO’s programme Noël Coward was supposed to have remarked that the show was longer than ‘Parsifal [and] without the laughs’. However, my understanding is that the opera Coward alluded to was Götterdämmerung.
This was my first acquaintance with the London Musical Theatre Orchestra which describes itself on their website (click here) as ‘the world’s only professional orchestra dedicated to performing musical theatre repertoire. LMTO produces spectacular concerts of musicals in major London venues with our full orchestra and world class soloists. The orchestra is formed of musicians who love musicals – most of whom are established professionals, but a quarter of whom are always young developing professionals.’
Based on T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s music; the musical opens in a mythical Camelot were Britain’s young king, Arthur, benefits from the wisdom of his mentor, the aged Merlyn who – part Gandalf and part Benjamin Button – lives his life in reverse and knows what the future will have in store for Arthur. However, he will soon lose the ability to guide him. Through his wise counsel Arthur has been instilled with an appreciation for thinking, setting him apart from his peers and, possibly, most heads of state through to the present day! Arthur wants to be a civilised king, fight for justice for all, help the oppressed, and use might only when it is right. He creates the legendary Round Table for a new order of knights who will uphold these values. As something of a zealot, the vainglorious Lancelot du Lac enters the story to become the most prominent of his knights. At first, he is an unsettling figure in Arthur’s court although the king is eager to knight the young Frenchman who egotistically claims he has achieved physical perfection. Guenevere, Arthur’s wife, takes an instant dislike to Lancelot and champions other knights against him in the jousts, but everything changes when he appears to resurrect a ‘dead’ Sir Lionel. An illicit relationship ensues, and the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot love triangle will undermine everything Camelot stands for and it begins to lose its gloss.
Even in a performance where the dialogue has been trimmed (with permission of the Lerner and Loewe estates) – and as engrossed as I undoubtedly was – Act I was of true Wagnerian length and all the above takes too long to unfold. There is not much else I want to criticise about Camelot, but I feel I must add how – in typical musicals’ fashion – its second half is rushed, and plotlines are underdeveloped or remain unresolved. The boo-hiss villain, Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred, suddenly arrives at Camelot: his mother is the king’s half-sister Morgause, though he was unaware of it at the time! The show rushes to a conclusion with Guenevere sentenced to die, Lancelot escaping only to subsequently return to rescue her, and concluding when Arthur pardons them both.
Perhaps it is commentary that peace is often simply a dream, just like Camelot. Regardless Act II feels rather hurried – and even more so here – especially after the first half. Nevertheless, as Arthur faces his final showdown in France with the forces challenging him there is some optimism as a brave young stowaway (a supremely confident performance from Raphael Higgins-Humes) appears, to be knighted by Arthur in order to return to England and help spread word of his ideals and let the story of Camelot live forever. How that when confronted by the truth about Lancelot and Guenevere, Arthur put his faith in the law, and that is why history should remember him, his Round Table and what it all stood for.
Part of Arthur’s vision is revealed when he says the words: ‘Yet tonight, on my way home, while I was thinking, I suddenly realised that when you’re in the sky looking down at the earth, there are no boundaries. No borders. Yet that’s what somebody always attacks about. And you win by pushing them back across something that doesn’t exist.’ Food for thought in our current often-depressing times! Camelot was beloved by the Kennedy administration in the 1960s and given the right production – with some suitable updating – would seem to have much to say to us in the late 2010s.
However LMTO only gave us a concert performance, although – directed with a light hand by Shaun Kerrison – the result could be more adequately described as being ‘partly staged’. There were subtle lighting changes yet no costumes or props, apart from a cloak for Merlyn and the sword Excalibur (of course!). There were music stands and scores were frequently referred to, but it all had been excellently prepared considering it was simply a one-off performance. I would just add that – if money had been available – some images could have been projected to the rear of the stage behind the orchestra to give some atmosphere to the various scenes.
The focal troika anchored everything with their excellent performances. Charles Rice brought flashes of the swagger of Escamillo (from Bizet’s Carmen) to Lancelot and his Act II ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ was quite rightly a showstopper. In the best way possible he reminded me vocally of Robert Goulet who created the role of Lancelot on Broadway. Equally Savannah Stevenson seemed to be channelling her inner Julie Andrews, the first Guenevere. Stevenson made this role entirely her role through her vivacious, feisty and vocally assured performance. As King Arthur, David Thaxton delivered the sort of performance that could have set the West End alight if this had not been just for one night only. He swung believably from wide-eyed optimism to righteous anger to – that possibly vain – hope. Perhaps Thaxton could have shown just a little more appreciation of the passage of time as the reality of his situation catches up with his character’s idealism, but this was a concert performance after all. He also sang gloriously throughout and ‘How to Handle a Woman’ was genuinely moving. During his charming Act II duet with Guenevere (‘What Do the Simple Folk Do?’) I cannot imagine why my thoughts meandered to Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex?
In Act II Mordred conspires against his father and forces him to confront the reality of Lancelot and Guenevere’s betrayal. Sam Swann’s approach to the role was very much that of Arthur’s conscious and someone who is just telling it as it is. Rounding out the cast was Celinde Schoenmaker’s enchanting cameo as Nimue; Matthew McKenna, Emmanuel Kojo and Oliver Savile were a fine trio of knights; and – a veteran amongst a young cast – Clive Carter brought gravitas to Merlyn and humour to the blowhard King Pellinore. He was there to sometimes lighten the mood of Camelot when it all threatens to get a bit dark, though his part might have been cut a little more to help move the evening along.
With all the talent on show it would be easy to overlook the contribution of the small LMTO ensemble and their enthusiastic conductor Freddie Tapner playing Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang’s lush original orchestrations and giving them full value. They – and the valiant chorus of 16 – played a significant part in the outstanding success of this first performance of Camelot in the West End for over 30 years.
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