If you’re able to maintain your composure during the finale of “Camelot” at Sidney Harman Hall, I commend you for your overdeveloped sense of restraint. When I realized where director Alan Paul was taking us with the stirring reprise of the title song, which King Arthur sings to a child who wants to join his illustrious Round Table, well, I kind of lost it.
I won’t spoil the surprise, but the setting of Alan Jay Lerner’s lyric, about the “one brief shining moment” at Arthur’s court, in which a just society is ascendant and the rule of law prevails, will feel something like heartbreak to anyone who grew up thinking of America as the Camelot of our time. (As did, of course, the Kennedys, who came to power just as Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical was rising on Broadway. They embraced it as eagerly as, decades later, the Obamas would “Hamilton.”)
Not to get too sappy about it — oh, all right, let’s get a little sappy, because “Camelot” is that sort of schmaltzy enterprise — but staging the musical now in a Washington in turmoil gives it a deeper resonance. And for an extra dose of inspiration, I strongly advise having the good fortune to watch it over the head of an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, especially as Ken Clark’s vigorous and deeply human King Arthur exhorts us with passionate readings of lines such as “Violence is not strength, and compassion is not weakness.” (Although I have no idea what his own review would be, Stephen G. Breyer sat two rows in front of me.)
It helps, too, that this altogether pleasurable Shakespeare Theatre Company revival, mounted on Walt Spangler’s starkly medieval wooden set, recruits so many exceptional voices for a score rich in melodic treasures. “Camelot,” saddled with an earnest book that ties itself in knots in the struggle for a lighthearted tone, doesn’t attain the witty heights of Lerner and Loewe’s earlier “My Fair Lady.” But the songs — “Camelot,” “C’est Moi,” “How to Handle a Woman,” “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” — belong to that joyfully transporting, velvety variety of Golden Age show tune that goes a long way to shoring up a show’s dramatic shortcomings.
And when the music is supplied by a fine 10-member orchestra, accompanying the likes of Alexandra Silber as an ardent, alluring Guenevere and Nick Fitzer, playing divinely self-confident Lancelot du Lac, the delights become magnified. Fitzer’s delivery of “If Ever I Would Leave You,” the pastoral love ballad Lancelot sings to Guenevere, is, in a word, sensational, and the performance is such that you may find yourself asking, “Where did they get this guy?” To other directors out there looking for a romantic musical-theater leading man I can declare: C’est lui.
The spiritual dimension of Arthur and Guenevere’s connection is just as vital, and in casting Clark and Silber, the director presents us with an endearingly modern notion of an arranged medieval marriage. It’s not storybook by any means, and the sense is conveyed that these exuberantly attractive and self-aware young royals do love each other. It might strike you, too, during their rendition of “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” that they bear a resemblance to the recently wedded Meghan and Harry. The song itself has been engineered by Paul on this occasion to reveal not just the playful intelligence that makes Arthur and Guenevere a real couple, but also the anguish the king feels, knowing that Guenevere’s heart is now inclined toward Lancelot.
This love triangle has to work, by the way, because “Camelot” is essentially a three-character musical; the others with notable moments you could count on one hand. As Mordred, Arthur’s dastardly son by another woman, Patrick Vaill enlivens the proceedings with a bracingly sneering dynamism. Floyd King and Ted van Griethuysen, Shakespeare Theatre veterans whose presence provokes affectionate outpourings, offer valuable contributions as Arthur’s mortal and supernatural advisers, King Pellinore and Merlyn. A word must be said, too, for the youngest cast member, Trinity Sky Deabreu, who holds her own quite adorably, among some very distinguished company.
Much of the production budget seems to have been entrusted to the costume designer, Ana Kuzmanic, who amasses an entire glittery wardrobe for Guenevere and a dazzling pair of golden raiments for the king and queen in Lancelot’s investiture scene. The care taken by Kuzmanic is of a piece with a smartly handled “Camelot” that allows us to think about the goodwill and ideas that a great leader can spread — and to hope for times of happily-ever-aftering yet to come.
Camelot, music by Frederick Loewe, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Directed by Alan Paul. Music direction, James Cunningham; set, Walt Spangler; costumes, Ana Kuzmanic; lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound, Ken Travis, choreography, Michele Lynch; new incidental music and orchestrations, Michael Dansicker; fight choreography, David Leong. With Melissa Wimbish, Mark Banik, Brandon Bieber and Paul Victor. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets: $44-$118. Through July 1 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-544-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.