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March 28, 2008

Camelot "Revisited"

Roy Meachum

Lou Diamond Phillips as King Arthur

 Lou Diamond Phillips as King Arthur



Shortly after Jack Kennedy's inauguration, I moved to New York, taking residency at the now-vanished Hotel Dauphin. By chance, the rooms assigned me had once been part of the suite of legendary Broadway producer David Belasco.


Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre bowed in this week Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot" that had opened the Christmas season before my New York arrival. The same pair created "My Fair Lady," celebrated earlier on the same Charm City stage.


Their tale of King Arthur, the Round Table and storied queen Guinevere's unproven liaison with knight-hero Lancelot has been brought gloriously to life in this production, which vanishes a week from Sunday. It would be a shame if any theatrical aficionado missed the show.


When confronted with Lou Diamond Phillips' casting as Arthur, I could but wonder how the actor – first introduced in the Latino film "La Bamba" – could measure up to the musical's first king, Richard Burton.


Neither Mr. Burton nor Mr. Phillips came to the part with a fame built on their singing voices. The Welsh actor had this wonderful voice that he used mostly to speak Mr. Lerner's lyrics. For him, presence was everything. His "Hamlet" may have been just the finest since Shakespeare penned the drama.


Despite his awards for portraying Siam's intimidating monarch in "The King and I," the Baltimore audience seemed hesitant on Phillips’ first entry from the wings. When the performance was over, men, women and children came to their feet, applauding wildly. He had won them over, even many with memories of the original Arthur.


Mr. Phillips brings liveliness to the part, nimbly moving about stage; really dancing when that's what's called for. Mr. Burton would approve, I have no doubt.


Furthermore, this Arthur can really sing and in keys other than basso profundo. I'm not prepared to say he's better than the original; their readings are so vastly different. But in the role, Lou Diamond Phillips is a winner! Have no doubt.


Matt Bogart is no Robert Goulet, the first Lancelot. Give him credit: he doesn't try to be. With less charm and grace, he portrays the French knight as more physical than lyrical. This is no criticism of his lines, spoken and sung.


Mr. Bogart is extremely comfortable in the part and that makes the entire house more than willing to like him and admire his Lancelot. In brief, he excels in a totally different way and no one could ask more.



Rachel de Benedet as Guinevere

 Rachel de Benedet as Guinevere


This is one show that doesn't lack good-looking ladies. The best of the lot has the part of Guinevere. Rachel de Benedet comes across much sexier than Julie Andrews, the original queen.


Ms. de Benedet also possesses a glorious voice that cozies up to the lyrics and melodies. She has the gift for soaring and lowering equally – look, ma, no hands! She sails her songs that easily.


Blessed with patrician posture and a face that's not pretty but beautiful, she bandies words with the best of them. The queen's sadder moments are no less effective when left to Rachel de Benedet. I'm genuinely surprised I had never heard her before "Camelot" came to Baltimore.


In racking my brain, I cannot remember the last touring company I could fault for lighting, orchestra, costumes, choreography or any other production elements. Rest assured, this is among the best technical and creative shows the Hippodrome has hosted. The performing company is absolutely splendid.


As readers know, President Kennedy was singularly taken with Alan Jay Lerner's words. "Camelot' was adopted by widow Jackie Kennedy and close aides to sum up what they jointly, with the president, combined to create, however briefly.


On the other hand, I wonder if timing may have contributed. The musical opened about six weeks before inauguration; it was the talk of New York for months that winter and spring.


Magnificent is the only apt description of Burton's entrance in a theatre district pub, after the curtain came down; I was having dinner with a friend and heard for myself the unceasing murmuring all around.


In any event, "Camelot's" album sales were not hurt by presidential interest; it remained a hit well after Mr. Kennedy's assassination. I can't imagine Baltimore record shops will not register an up tick in sales, inspired by the Hippodrome's current production.


As I said, 10 days ahead the stage version will follow its mythical model and disappear into clouds and fog after April 6. Unless you make a move, and quickly, you will miss out on these "Camelot" pleasures.


Go, do it!!


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