July 13 Glimmerglass: Camelot


Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival

Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass premiere of ‘Camelot’ chivalrous, but hardly a knight to remember

David Pittsinger, as King Arthur, provided most of the magic in this pleasant but unspectacular production of the Lerner and Loewe musical

By David Abrams

Francesca Zambello’s courageous marketing decision to produce a blockbuster Broadway musical each season is not without its challenges.  Unlike opera, where audiences hope to be artistically engaged, Broadway musicals draw crowds expecting to be entertained.  As such, the pressure is on for the Glimmerglass Festival Artistic Director to provide musicals that keep pace with — or exceed — the entertainment appeal of the Festival’s prior efforts.

Judged by the yardstick of its past successes, Glimmerglass’s latest venture has come up short.  Its current production of Camelot, though enjoyable, pales in comparison both to last season’s stunning production of The Music Man and the prior year’s Annie Get Your Gun.

The finger pointing rightly begins with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe — whose 1960 collaboration can hardly be considered the pair’s best effort.  Camelot lacks both the depth of story and the number of memorable tunes of My Fair Lady, produced some four years earlier.  Still, it was Glimmerglass’s new production, not the story and the music, that ultimately underwhelmed those in the crowd who, like I, left the theater unfulfilled.

The story, adapted from T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, centers on a medieval love triangle involving the enlightened King Arthur, his handsome wife Guenevere and the love-smitten knight, Sir Lancelot.  Themes of chivalry, romance, adultery, battle and ultimately forgiveness run through the nearly three-hour show.  Baby boomers no doubt will remember Camelot as all but having defined the Kennedy presidency.  According to Jackie Kennedy, JFK’s favorite line came at the end: Don’t let it be forgot/ That once there was a spot/ For one brief shining moment that was known/ As Camelot.

The “one brief shining moment” in this production is David Pittsinger, whose stunning singing and acting throughout the performance as King Arthur is alone worth the price of admission.

Pittsinger, who from my seat in the theater looked curiously like political humorist Bill Maher, sang beautifully and carried himself well onstage — capturing the attention of the listener at all times.  His crisp speaking voice spread his lines across the theater with ease and grace, while his clean diction obviated the need for supertitles (which in this production accompanied the singing but not the dialogue).

Pittsinger’s full-strength bass-baritone and strong delivery, which at times overshadowed the other singers, was apparent from his opening number, I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight, and his signature tune, Camelot.  Even his whistling (during the charming duo with the Queen, What Do the Simple Folk Do?) projected well.  The tender side of King Arthur’s character came out, loud and clear, in Pittsinger’s earnest and sensitive delivery of How to Handle a Woman, as the confused King seeks guidance and wisdom in dealing with his beloved Guenevere.

As an actor, Pittsinger captured the essence of Arthur as a well-meaning King seeking to make sense of the world and trying to do the right thing at any cost — even if that means watching Guenevere slowly slip away into the arms of Lancelot.  He forged a character whose ultimate decision to forgive the two greatest loves in his life (Guenevere and Lancelot) we may respect or reject.  Either way, Pittsinger’s Arthur is a flesh-and-blood character with whom we can empathize.

As Guenevere, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman has the looks to sustain the love triangle drama throughout the lengthy production, and her handsome voice — while by no means large — made for a pleasant listening experience during her principal numbers.

Chuchman’s opening song, The Simple Joys of Maidenhood, set the bar high for those that followed — culminating in what I thought her best effort of the show: the sweetly expressive Before I Gaze at You Again at the end of Act 1.  Unlike Pittsinger, however, Chuchman could never quite abandon her trained operatic voice for something better suited to musical theater.  And the mellowness of her speaking voice made me wish that supertitles had been used for more than just the singing.

Next to Pittsinger, the most commanding performance of the evening came from Jack Noseworthy — a first-rate actor whose suave and calculating presence as Arthur’s nefarious illegitimate son, Mordred, was unforgettable.

Noseworthy’s high-pitched tenor projected exceptionally well, and his diction was beyond reproach.  (He sounded the most “British” of the cast.)  Like Roddy McDowall in the original Broadway production, Noseworthy spoke his melodic lines during The Seen Deadly Virtues, shifting to pitches when singing along with the knights in Fie on Goodness.  But whether singing or speaking, Noseworthy maintained an imposing presence befitting his role as the show’s only true villain — staying in character even as the audience began hissing him, if only affectionately, at the curtain calls.

Nathan Gunn started off with a bang, using his handsome baritone to capture the moment in his opening song, C’est Moi, where he defines his character as the cocky, self-centered would-be knight to Arthur’s newly created Round Table.  But Gunn never again sounded this good during the remainder of the show, and his signature song, If Ever I Would Leave You, sounded shaky and rushed, as well as lacking in any meaningful degree of expression.

Glimmerglass Young Artists Clay Hilley (Sir Dinahan), Wayne Hu (Sir Sagramore) and Noel Bouley (Sir Lionel) deported themselves well as the triumvirate of knights and interacted playfully with Chuchman in Then You May Take Me to the Fair.  I especially enjoyed the boys’ horsing around with Mordred in the Act 2 Fie on Goodness — which I thought was going to end as a Bud Light commercial.

Wynn Harmon, in the non-singing dual roles as Arthur’s mentor, Merlyn, and the eccentric old knight, Pellinore, projected his lines well but sounded rather hoarse — making it difficult at times to hear his every word.  Young Richard Pittsinger, the real-life son of David cast as the young and impressionable Tom of Warwick, was a fitting choice to carry on the dream of his hero King Arthur, as the latter heads to France to battle Lancelot’s armies.

Director Richard Longbottom deserves praise for his charming staging of the joyous Then You May Take Me to the Fair — a delightful number in which Guenevere coyly coaxes the three knights to thrash newly arrived Lancelot in the upcoming jousting match, promising whoever succeeds a good time in her company at the Fair.  Longbottom nevertheless wasted several opportunities to enhance the action of this mostly static production.

The second-act dueling scene between the knights and Lancelot, performed in slow motion, was utterly lacking in tension and anima.  The lightly choreographed dance scenes by Alex Sanchez, while visually appealing, had none of the pizzazz that ignited the stage in last season’s
unforgettable production of The Music Man.  Lancelot’s miraculous healing of the fallen Lionel, which could have been milked for all it’s worth as a dramatically vibrant moment, was reduced to a simple touch of the wounded man’s chest — as if an abbreviated medieval version of CPR.  Longbottom’s decision to begin Gunn’s delivery of If Ever I Would Leave You from the very back of the stage was ill-advised, since the baritone could barely be heard until making his way to the front.

Kevin Depinet’s abstract minimalist sets don’t do much to enhance the drama, either.  An imposing structure in the shape of a right triangle anchors the set, with a Disney-like mural of a seemingly far-off castle resting below the top of the hypotenuse.  Standing at the base of the triangle is an oddity sprouting what appears to be a stack of giant linguini.  When King Arthur is seen hiding within the strands of linguini, we realize this is actually a tree.  Cooked al dente.

Depinet is less abstract in his design of the King’s chambers.  A pair of thrones sits on a lengthy tapestry, over which a large chandelier of candles, suspended by chains, hangs overhead.  In the final scene this chandelier will fall to the ground, if only slowly and deliberately, ostensibly to signal the demise of Arthur’s vision of the perfect Camelot.  (I much prefer the scene from Phantom of the Opera.)  Paul Tazewell’s colorful costumes, while easy on the eyes, more closely resemble early Renaissance than the story’s sixth-century medieval period dress.

The 42-piece orchestra, directed by James Lowe, had a rough time fighting pitch problems during the instrumental ensemble sections.  There were also a few sloppy ensemble moments during the transitions into new tempos during the Overture and Entr’acte to Act 2, which I expect will disappear after another performance or two.

Audience reaction at the curtain calls sounded genuinely excited, particularly with respect to the three lead roles.  But it wasn’t until Pittsinger (the elder) came onstage that the crowd took to its feet in tandem — and justly so.  He was the knight in shining armor who almost single-handedly brought this production out of, well, the Dark Ages.

Details Box:
What: Camelot, music by Frederick Loewe and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
When: July 13, 2013
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $10 to $132 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Website: http://www.glimmerglass.org
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 19: 1:30 p.m. July 22 (sold out); 1:30 p.m. July 28; 7:30 p.m. August 1; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 3; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 5 (sold out); 1:30 p.m. Aug. 11 (sold out); 1:30 p.m. Aug. 13 (sold out); 7:30 p.m. Aug. 15; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 17; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 23; Special Young Artists performance 1:30 p.m. Aug. 23

  8 comments for “July 13 Glimmerglass: Camelot

  1. Allan Pearson
    July 19, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    I won’t comment specifically on this review of the Glimmerglass production because I didn’t and can’t attend a performance, living so far away, but I have never read a bad review of Nathan Gunn. All the director had to do was find a way for Gunn to take his shirt off for a bit and the audience would have gone wild for sure.

    I have always loved the musical itself, having attended the original production of “Camelot” on Broadway, with original, so I do take exception with it being a weak musical. I still have the CD and listen to it quite often. I personally respond to it much more positively than the other musicals mentioned in the current review. To each his own, I guess.

    I do not consider musicals to be operas in any way, shape or form, and obviously, they have become popular fare for opera companies trying to attract newer, younger audiences. Whether that works to get people into real operas, remains to be seen. Will someone who is entertained by “Camelot,” for example, attend Britten’s “Gloriana”? I doubt it.

  2. Jeanniemack
    July 20, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    We saw the production on opening night. Too bad you didn’t. All the performers were splendid, including Nathan Gunn. Anyone can have a bad night….one of the trouble with reviews, Yes? I believe the response from the audience may be the best indication of the success of the show and it was over the top!

  3. Peter Moller
    July 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    I’ve never found the distinction between art and entertainment helpful or illuminating. The performing arts require artistry to be entertaining. Art and entertainment are inextricably interwoven. This false dichotomy suggests that opera is an art form and the musical is not; musicals are entertaining and operas are not. Perhaps a more useful critical concept is “engaging”. If I’m looking at my watch during an opera, a musical, a play, a symphony then I’m not engaged and the work has failed in some aspect of its artistry.

  4. Allan Pearson
    July 28, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Both opera and musical are indeed art forms, just different art forms.  I never suggested that musicals were not an art form! And I was not making a “false dichotomy!”  That was your (Peter Moller’s) false assumption.

    Nathan Gunn is an opera singer who can sing musical roles as well.  Most singers who do musicals cannot sing truly operatic roles.  “Engaging” may be a useful critical concept for you, but it does not define the “art form!”  “La traviata” is indeed an opera and not a musical, whether a given production or performance of it is engaging for you or not.  If it is a stupid “Scheissregietheater” production with a lousy cast, Verdi’s work is still an opera!

  5. July 29, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    Gosh, not sure what production you attended. I adored it–production values were exquisite. This review is mean-spirited and a disservice to the entire cast and crew.

  6. Ruth Kelley
    August 6, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Saw the production on August 3rd and had a similar reaction – bleah. Where my companions and I loved The Music Man and Annie Get Your Gun, this production of Camelot was very disappointing.

    I’ve had the score memorized for 40 years and it was still difficult for me to understand the words of many of the songs. My companion who had never seen Camelot couldn’t hear either the lyrics or the dialogue and was not just disappointed; she was angry. I felt the opera singers were not encouraged enough to make their singing appropriate for musical theater; as in, it is more important that the audience understand the story as told through the words of the songs. The only character played to the musical-theater-hilt was Mordred; everyone else seemed to be trying to make Camelot into an opera.

    The staging and costuming was also dull. Shades of grey, darkness and gloom predominated.

    We were very disappointed in the entire production. Other than Mordred and the dog, it just wasn’t very entertaining.

  7. Nancy Kintzel
    August 19, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    I just saw Camelot at Glimmerglass on August 15 and 17, my wanting to see the production twice. My particular interest was in seeing and hearing Nathan Gunn as Lancelot since his 2008 performance of this role with the New York Philharmonic was outstanding and his singing If Ever I would Leave You stopped the show.

    I found his Glimmerglass performance to be underdone and lacking in the depth. I agree with the previous comment that he should not have started to sing from the back of the stage where the project of his voice was not good. The love connection between Lancelot and Guinevere never seemed real to me. I also did not feel the increasing lack of love between the King Guinevere which is a intricate part of the story.

    I will continue to be enthralled with Nathan Gunn but I am afraid the King stole this show. The director of this performance needed to pay more attention to the intricacies of this musical and question why Nathan Gunn did not stop the show this time.

  8. Wayne Myers
    August 25, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    Your review raises interesting questions. If opera companies are going to routinely feature musicals, what musicals will best fit the company? Not all musicals should be staged by opera companies. Some have successfully staged Sondheim musicals such as “Sweeney Todd,” and “A Little Night Music” and “Assassins,” “Passion,” and “Follies” would also be good fits, but they are not the “crowd pleaser,” “tourist friendly” musicals of the sort Glimmerglass is apparently targeting. Comden and Green’s “On the Twentieth Century” would also be a great vehicle for an opera company.

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