WATERTOWN — “Camelot,” Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical tribute to the legend of King Arthur, explores the theme of an idealistic world in which, for one brief shining moment, honor and justice replace violence and greed. But the current New Repertory Theatre production is such a mishmash of uneven talent and uncertain direction, the shining moment feels more like a harsh glare.
To be fair, book writer Lerner struggled with merging the idealistic Arthur with a magical world of magicians and witches that were a central theme in T.H. White’s fantasy novel “The Once and Future King,” on which the musical is based. It’s not easy for any director to make a smooth transition from “Follow Me,” the enchantress Nimue’s seduction of the wizard Merlin, to “C’est Moi,” the dashing Lancelot’s charmingly egotistical introduction, but director Russell Garrett has chosen to create long gaps between this and every scene, which slows the action to a near standstill. (Let’s not even talk about the endless halftime marching routines that masquerade as choreography.)
That’s a problem, because even in the distillation of White’s four-part novel, the musical covers a lot of ground, including Arthur’s relationship with his wizard teacher Merlin, his relationship with his new bride Guenevere, the formation of the Knights of the Round Table, the budding romance between his wife and his best friend Lancelot, and the destruction of his visionary kingdom by his illegitimate son Mordred.
While Lerner wrestled with plot points, he and Loewe created a lush, romantic musical score that includes such heartbreaking ballads as “Before I Gaze at You Again,” “I Loved You Once in Silence” and “If Ever I Would Leave You.” To feel the rich beauty of these songs, of course, requires excellent vocal and acting chops. Erica Spyres, as Guenevere, knows exactly what’s required and delivers the first two with grace and simplicity. She also gives Guenevere a much-needed sense of mischief and humor, which makes her affection for both Arthur and Lancelot feel sincere. There seems to be nothing this actress cannot do, since at other points in the show she not only whistles, but whips out a violin and plays a musical interlude.
As Arthur, Benjamin Evett creates a wonderful character arc, building believably from a naive, idealistic young man to a responsible, committed king. He and Spyres are stiff together, but they manage a charming “What Do the Simple Folk Do?,” and Evett makes Arthur’s heartbreak and hope for the future palpable.
The love triangle that takes over the second act is sparked by the arrival of Lancelot, played by Mark Koeck. Koeck is handsome and has the humorously self-centered aspect of Lancelot down pat, but even though he hits all the notes in “If Ever I Would Leave You,” his voice and emotions never communicate the power and depth of feeling that should make this song a swooning showstopper.
Other production elements, particularly the costumes, distract the audience from the world of the play. Rafael Jaen, who usually adds a quirky sensibility to the stage, has oddly chosen to dress this crowd of English citizens in a collection of pashminas. The castle may have been drafty, but every outfit onstage includes unnecessary scarves. When Lancelot appears for his pivotal encounter with Guenevere in her bedroom, the scarf fashionably knotted at his throat looks ridiculously out of place on his doublet and hose.
John Traub has created towers that turn to serve as bits of forest and then parts of battlements, but he never suggests any intimacy, and the concentric circles painted on the stage are more suggestive of a bull’s-eye than a round table where negotiation and compromise take place.
David McGrory’s eight-piece orchestra is competent but sounds thin considering the rich orchestrations of Loewe’s music.
“Camelot” may not be the easiest musical to stage, but this New Rep production provides no creative approach to the material and leaves a disappointing sense of a missed opportunity.