A royal treat

Camelot shines brightly at PPAC
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 5, 2008
POWER COUPLE: de Benedet and Phillips.

You’ve got to hand it to the Obama team for going that extra step. What awesome organizing ability, to arrange for the musical Camelot to open at the Providence Performing Arts Center (through March 9) on the night of his dashed hopes for a Rhode Island primary election victory.
Yes, a case can be made that the lessons many take away from the legend of the Knights of the Round Table are hopelessly naïve. But, of course, no less a hard-bitten political realist than JFK, along with wife Jackie, adopted the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical as their unabashed inspiration. For the moment we will forget any disparity between the Round Table’s “Might for Right” ethos and the Bay of Pigs invasion.
But seriously. There is a charming frankness and honesty to this portrayal of the way the world works. Based on T.H. White’s wise and wonderful novel The Once and Future King, the tale is an account of how idealism develops, personally and politically. But it doesn’t neglect to remind us how towering ideals can crumble when creatures as flawed as we human beings have constructed them. And it does so without giving much ammunition to cynics: all the tragic flaws depicted here are falls from greatness.
Look how easy it is to identify with these characters, if you have any spark of pride that could be fanned into hubris. The story is framed by King Arthur (Lou Diamond Phillips) thinking about his mistakes as he wanders his camp on the eve of battle, a fight resulting from his weakness as a kind leader and a trusting husband.
One of the wonderful things about this musical is how precisely the songs amplify feelings at crucial moments, feelings that would otherwise only be mentioned in passing. When Arthur is baffled at the ways of Guenevere (Rachel de Benedet), “How to Handle a Woman” doesn’t come across as instructional exposition but rather as heartfelt (hint: love her). Similarly, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight?” conveys their being somewhat bored with each other, setting us up for her falling for Lancelot.
Although Phillips lacks the solid physical presence, and the booming baritone, of Richard Burton, who originated the role, he’s quite right as King Arthur. His singing voice is fine, and he can raise himself up to royal stature well enough, but his real coup is in providing a boyish vulnerability. Arthur’s nickname has been Wart, after all, from the time he was a humble squire who pulled the sword out of the stone to earn his right to become king. Phillips still has in him the buoyant Ritchie Valens of 20 years ago in La Bamba.

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