Glorious but gutted “Camelot” opens Ravinia Festival

Sat Jun 06, 2009 at 1:51 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Rod Gilfry sings as Lancelot with Sylvia McNair (Guinevere) and George Hearn (King Arthur) seated, at Ravinia’s performance of Camelot Friday night. Photo: Patrick Gipson/Ravinia

On November 22, 1963, George Hearn was set to perform Camelot in Columbus, Ohio; Hearn was playing Sir Dinadan on the first national tour of the beloved Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical but was also understudy to both King Arthur and Merlin the Magician when the news came that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. 

Because Camelot had been the favorite play of the late president, the show went on that night and the term became quickly applied to the Kennedy era — that “one brief shining moment” — as the real Camelot itself was said to have been a millennia and a half earlier. 

Hearn would go on to a long and storied Broadway and film career but would not get the chance to take up the sword Excalibur for himself until Ravinia CEO Welz Kauffman asked him to do so for this year’s Ravinia Festival opening night. 

The result was worth the wait. Hearn poured himself thoroughly into the role Friday night as if he had been doing it for years, with just the right mix of vulnerability and indignity in the face of his court’s treachery and injustice.  Not only did Hearn bring the show’s popular songs to life with a lyrical lilt and punchy immediacy, but his monologues on how he became king, his vision for a Round Table, and his decision to forge ahead with that vision—despite the impending romance between his wife and best friend—were punctuated as precisely as if they too had been set to music.       

No less impressive were soprano Sylvia McNair’s Guenevere, a model of grace and eccentricity, and baritone Rod Gilfry’s Lancelot, who nearly stole the show with his rendition of its signature number, If Ever I Would Leave You,  nuanced with both passion and gorgeous fluctuations of tone color.    

Kudos, too, to conductor Paul Gemignani, a longtime Sondheim collaborator who stepped in for the ailing Erich Kunzel and showed that he can get as much out of a lush and lyrical Broadway score as he can more modern musical theater.  The Ravinia Festival Orchestra rose to the occasion admirably.    

The only downside to the evening were the excessive cuts, sometimes so severe that if you did not know the play, you would indeed have wondered what the king is doing tonight.  The libretto was often reduced to virtual paraphrase to function more or less as spoken introductions to the songs, but even two of these were cut (Then You May Take Me to the Fair and Fie on Goodness!) as was two-thirds of The Jousts.  What chorus numbers did remain had a handful of non-dancing vocal soloists attempting to function as a full chorus but were hopelessly overmatched by the full orchestra.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Glorious but gutted “Camelot” opens Ravinia Festival”

  1. Posted Jun 07, 2009 at 11:41 am by Marc Davis

    What a terrible waste of talent! Your review is fairly on target and with my birthday being on Nov 22 (I was only 9 in 1963) I was especially touched that I finally was able to see George Hearn in a role he should have played (and may still) in another production…but a waste and disappointment to the Ravinia audience…after such a lush and wonderful, albeit simple production of Most Happy Fella 2 years ago….couldn’t Ravinia at least have afforded a “sword” to use for knighting??? So cheapened and at not such cheap seating! and for only one night…good thing i guess..the pavillion was barely over half full…..Welz Kauffman and Ravinia were doing so beautifully with all the Sondheim shows from 2001-2006 and then with “Fella” in 2007…then nothing last year…then to look at this barely “readers theatre” version…what did we need a director for? a professional lighting designer….etc…to make these tickets so highly priced…..Again, as you said, beautifully performed, but to cut so much so as not to appreciate the full beauty of this musical….Lerner & Loewe must be cursing from above! Shame on you Ravinia….maybe it’s time for Welz to “move on” to quote Stephen Sondheim…..

  2. Posted Jun 07, 2009 at 10:33 pm by Steve Wilcox

    I totally agree with the aforementioned comments about the gutting and cutting being the blemishes on an otherwise stellar performance.

    At one point I wanted to stand and shout “this is the place in the show where Guinevere engages Sirs Lionel, Sagamore and Dinadan to do in Lancelot in order to win her favour (Take Me To The Fair)!” It’s a wonderful number with some pseudo Cole Porter play on words… “you’ll open wide him?… I’ll sub-divide him!” etc. It also advances the plot, which wasn’t given its deserved thickening with that omission.

    You wanted a real sword? Well, how about a real boy for the speaking role of Tom?
    It would have been a wonderful experience for a deserving Chicago area youth to come on stage in the final minutes of the concert to read the role of young Tom of Warwick. Instead we had Ms. Summer Naomi Smart step forward from the ensemble, complete with a cap – the only prop of the evening.

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