STAGE REVIEW : Return to 'Camelot'--Sans Inspiration


It was John F. Kennedy, not some eager columnist, who established the link between his presidency and "Camelot." In his inaugural speech, Kennedy read from the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical, which had opened on Broadway the previous month, suggesting a kinship between King Arthur's vision of "a new order of chivalry" and the New Frontier. The connection changed with Kennedy's death--goodness killed by evil.

People might make a different connection as Robert Goulet's Arthur speaks the same words in a touring production of "Camelot" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Through an accident of history, the show that was Kennedy's 32 years ago is re-emerging just as the Kennedy-inspired Bill Clinton is readying his inaugural.

So, a new "Camelot" for the New Covenant? Clinton's watchword, change , isn't exactly on director Norbert Joerder's mind. After all, Goulet is Arthur, as he was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1975. James Valentine, doubling as the "youthening" Merlyn and the aging knight Pellinore, is a "Camelot" veteran. Patricia Kies may strike some ears as a clone of the original Guenevere, Julie Andrews.

Some may wish that Steve Blanchard was a clone of the original Lancelot, Robert Goulet. Then, at least, there might have been a real lovers' triangle here. Outside of casting, there is little that can be changed in "Camelot," and Blanchard's bland Frenchman reminds that not all change is for the better.

In this memorable political year, the President-"Camelot" link is natural, and Goulet's strong suit with Arthur is pure '92--this crown sits uneasy. His youthful spryness in the early scenes with Merlyn has a Peter Pan quality, and when he takes on the weight of kingly responsibilities and the politics of a world without borders, Goulet's Arthur feels it especially hard. (His indecisions and tactical botches later on will recall other Presidents still.)

Goulet the singer, though, is playing another game. For the difficult title song and others, Goulet makes up notes as he rushes through phrases (he's ahead of music director John Visser's orchestra on "How to Handle a Woman"). He lends songs a Vegas casualness completely at odds with his attack as an actor. He can't kill these songs--probably no one can--but his cavalier approach creates a vacuum in the show.

Kies fills it as much as she possibly can with a truly regal performance. The Andrews sound is there, but that also means an articulation that much of the rest of the cast could learn from. Kies has touches of her own--as when she takes lavish joy in courtly slaughter--that place her at the musical and spiritual center of this production.

That isn't the job for the actress playing Guenevere, but like Arthur says to Lancelot, someone has to do it. Kenneth Boys takes on his job as the bad Mordred with real pleasure, just when Joerder's staging needs a swift kick. Some of Neil Peter Jampolis' set pieces bump and rock when they should magically glide, but his medieval curtains and backdrops suggest some of the load Arthur is feeling.

* "Camelot," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Today through Sunday and Dec. 29-Jan. 3, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends January 3. $19-$45; (714) 740-2000 or (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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