Thursday, July 27, 2023

It's Only a Model... Shhhhhhh.

I think I've set a record for going from: 
"Not knowing a thing exists,"
"Mourning the fact that others won't be able to experience the outstanding talent, thought provoking content and emotion now that a thing is over."

Part way through last week, Anabelle found out the revival of Camelot at Lincoln Center was ending on Sunday. Tickets were selling at normal Broadway "whoah, that's pricey" levels. However, being better informed than I (as witnessed by her knowing it existed) she also knew about the lottery system and last minute single ticket student sales. Honestly, Rosa and I expected the most likely case was Anabelle ending up with one ticket shortly before the curtain rose and us sightseeing around the city to wait for her. 
We thought there was an outside chance that maaaaaaaybe one of us would get to go with her. 

The lottery system worked astonishingly in our favor and all three of us, along with my niece Aurora, were fortunate enough to see the Matinee on Saturday July 22, one day before closing. 

Strictly from an acting and writing level, in both quality and getting positive messages across, I think this was the best play I've seen. Granted, I am a HUGE fantasy, mythology and Arthurian Legends nerd. (This would be obvious if the Excalibur post went up when I wrote it instead of as part of a series that reaches it in October. Two posts a week for nearly a dozen years, and my timing continues to suck.)

Embarrassing admission- I've known this play's title since childhood, Mom had the album, and I've seen bits of the Ed Sullivan footage of the original cast, as well as references to it on the Muppet Show. I also knew the Camelot song in Python's Holy Grail was likely a dig at this show. Until Anabelle stated her excitement to see the show was stemming from, "Phillipa Soo is playing Guenevere,"  it never fully registered that the plot follows the actual Arthurian Legends. 

Sometimes the bucket like nature of my brain storage means obvious connections get missed. In my defense, when I first learned of this show I was young, foolish and had no experience in the world of musical theater. I assumed something with "Tra La La"s in it must be too light hearted to be based on the source material. Nothing in my life up to that point prepared me for for the emotional levels of actual theatrical content, songs like, "The Lusty Month of May," or how much sensual "oomph" a skilled performer could put into a "Tra La La."

There was a bit of panic on the part of my control freak self when Rosa wasn't 100% sure after I asked if the busses ran at times we needed them to get in and out of Manhattan. Considering I printed the schedules for her and had seen them, those levels of my control freak self when related to driving should be obvious. After a time (or a few times, anyway) of yelling at the non-functioning Lincoln Center parking website, Rosa calmly showed me the times, ordered our bus tickets and the plan was set. 

I drove the four of us to the Willowbrook Mall, and we took the short bus ride in without incident. (Just as Rosa and Anabelle had done before) We walked up Eighth Avenue, with a short bear left through Columbus circle, and made it to Lincoln Center with plenty of time.
(Yes...I know.)

On the way up Eighth, I made multiple statements such as, 
"Its such a shame how many places here are chains now." 
"Ooh, that's a cool looking local bar and grill."
"Real New York pizza, it smells so good."

Then the rest of my family, clearly ignoring me the whole way, said, "Lets get lunch at Panera."
I had a plain, grilled chicken sandwich to allow more cheating at dinner. 

The four of us stood in a two square foot space behind the beverage counter and ate lunch. (Because... Manhattan.) While there, the father of a young family called me "sir" and offered me his seat, ensuring I'd feel overly ancient and decrepit the rest of the day.

But enough about the mediocre lunch...
which was actually quite tasty, I'm just being a jerk...
On to the reason for the trip.

That lottery system is something else. For less than a third what top of the balcony, nosebleed seats would have run us, Anabelle and Aurora were eight rows back from center stage, and Rosa and I were seven rows back from the stage corner that sticks out into the audience. 
I could have spit on it.
"But I don't sir, because... how rude."
(Yes, I'm quoting Monster Squad in a Broadway review, 
to allay any fears I may have developed some class.)

I (and they made it very clear- no one else in my family) was thrilled to be sitting in the same Vivian Beaumont Theater where, in 1987, the Flying Karamazov Brothers and Vaudeville Nouveau performed the awesome juggling version of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors

I am glad that I did not know Aaron Sorkin's new book removed all elements of magic from the story. I would have been all geeky and whiny about it before hand. I also would have been completely wrong. It served the story of building the legend of Camelot perfectly. 

I experienced another bit of strangeness with the new book. While I have never seen the original (see "didn't know it was about Arthurian Legend" above) it was obvious in some scenes that the dialogue was modernized and/ or updated. However, in almost every one of those occasions, I could easily image Richard Burton, Robert Goulet, Roddy McDowell or Julie Andrews performing that dialogue. 
(I do know their work well. Just because I didn't see them in this doesn't mean I'm a complete Philistine. 
[Thinking it was a generic royal story instead of actual "Camelot" does mean I'm a complete idiot, though.] )

Honestly, out of any well known, often told stories, Arthurian Legends should be updated, because ideals change, and Camelot is all about ideals. Heck, Camelot is an ideal that even Camelot cannot measure up to. 
(Shades of Cary Grant saying, "Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.")
In every version of the tale, Arthur becomes king, unites England, take a queen, builds a castle...
And then the whole thing rapidly goes down the toilet.
Yes, Camelot is, contradictorily, equally famous for being an ideal to aspire to, and having an an extremely spectacular fall that starts almost immediately.

But it is still the goal, the journey... that ideal, that's important.
(In other words-
"It’s a metaphor, Your Highness. It’s poetry. 
That means it’s not literally about rain and snow, it’s about..."
"I know what a metaphor is and we have poets in France."
"Yes, of course. *beat with audience glance* But do you?"
hee hee.)

On to the cast.

Since Phillipa Soo was who attracted Anabelle to this show in the first place, I'll start with her staggering talent. She is justifiably famous and anyone who has heard her voice recorded on albums or in films knows why. However, those recordings are NOTHING compared to hearing her live. 
Anabelle and Aurora stated they almost died when she came out.
She also carried off the dramatic, romantic and comedy parts effortlessly, especially playing what (a smidgen of research has revealed) is a more intelligent, strong willed and influencing role for Guenevere.  As usual, I know more about comedy than musical ability. 
Yes, potatoes are always funny, but she wielded that material like a true master. 

And the cool part is, having said all of those nice things, 
she didn't overshadow the afternoon's performance. 
The cast, and this show, were that good.

As important as Guenevere and the romantic triangle is to the tale, and as powerful as talent that sparks international fame is, this is really Arthur's story. The play is based on White's Once and Future King, which in turn was based on Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur. 
The man is in BOTH titles! (And yes I will be reading/ rereading those two once I finish the book I'm on now, because of how much this show has stayed with me.)

Andrew Burnap led the play as befitting the King. Of course he could sing, act, dance and stage fight incredibly well. He's headlining a show at Lincoln Center, that should be obvious. What I found the most cool was his personification of the internal and external battles Arthur went through trying to be both a man and an legendary, inspirational king. Now that I understand the medium, I know that most shows end act one with an ENORMOUS musical number featuring varied dancing, a multitude of props and any cast member who isn't nailed down at that moment. Camelot gave us just a bit of fitting music (by a huge and fantastic orchestra that I should probably mention somewhere) to back up King Arthur's rousing (to himself and us) speech. 
As it always has, apparently. Go figure.
And Mr. Burnap put his entire essence and being into that speech, yielding an emotional high of an ending that no amount of theatrics and flash could have enhanced.
"This is the time of King Arthur!" indeed. 
I got chills.

We got to see two Lancelots. Jordan Donica strode out and powerfully commanded the stage with his voice and presence in the first act. However, sadly, he was injured. 
("It is the old wound, my King, it has never healed"?
Not sure, but thank you to Sir Dinadan who came out at the stage door afterwards, and told us what happened and that he was okay.)
Christian Mark Gibbs played the greatest knight in the second act. My original thought was that worked out well for the way the play is structured since Lance #1 had more power in his performance and Lance #2 had more melodic-ish-ness (sorry that got away from me) in his voice. However, the more I think about it, I believe the difference came more from the material itself. The first act was filled with Lancelot's bravado filled introduction and duels, while the second focused on his time with Guenevere. I'm pretty sure they both could have pulled off either half very well. This is supported by Lance #1 on the cast album, which I've been listening to since we saw the show (and, duh, his Tony Nomination).Seeing how Lance #2 boisterously interacted with friends outside of the stage door supported this theory as well.
An extra thank you to Lance #2 for popping out to sign autographs on what must have been a stressful day on many levels. Anabelle was correct, that was a very cool hat.

As always in this stage of my life, for heroic tales my favorite character is the old man, smart ass advisor. In a reverse of Lancelot, Shakespeare scholar and highly experienced and respected stage and screen (and anywhere else one can perform) actor Dakin Matthews played two versions of that kind of role. Merlin, one of -if not THE- key archetype for that brand of character, and Sir Pellinore later on. Pelli was a more absentminded, but still wise in his own way version. Both characters added a great deal of humor to any scene he was in, but also increased the emotional stakes of those situations as well. I feel I should apologize to folks sitting around me as a nugget of Arthurian knowledge popped back into my head causing me to whisper-shout "PELLINORE!!!" before he was fully introduced while he was describing the Questing Beast. 
I’m lucky I wasn’t sitting near Anabelle and Aurora who got yelled at by “their enemy” for talking during Act 1. (As far as they can tell, their talking consisted of cheering for and praising the cast.) He ended up sliding down a few seats during Act 2… which put him near a little kid who talked the whole time.
Ha Ha.

On the bad guy side, Mordred was petty, manipulative, cowardly, and easy to despise.  So, a definite "Exceeds Expectations" for  Taylor Trench, impressively done. He also sang the heck out of two Villain Songs which were "absolute bangers," I believe is the proper term. (Bonus points to the knight who hit that crazy long note in the part about Scotland during "Fie on Goodness."It took skill to look extra evil while enjoying his work when Mordred's main "crimes" were really only accelerating and documenting Camelot's already existing problems.

Morgan Le Fay (combined with Morgause again, something done so frequently I'm sorry I mentioned it, because Arthurian Legend fans know this and everyone else doesn't care) was also fantastically played, and different than I've ever seen. The removal of magic changed her from the "witch in the woods," to an alcoholic (yet far from addled) scientist.
But, oh how it worked! It was especially bolstered by Marilee Talkington's gusto filled delivery. Because when you change an evil sorceress into an inebriated woman of science...besides being fun, she's right! That is, she's right about analytical and logical predictions of what is coming in the future. She's right that that science will replace myth (at least for most respectable people). It also likely means that her contribution to Mordred's darkness is likely more neglect based and less connected to spells (which don't exist) or machinations. Her biggest threat to Arthur, outside of him trying to figure out where his responsibilities to her lied as both a man and a king,
(And, that whole thing where Mordred used a fake letter from her to get Arthur out of the Palace on Lancelot's night to guard Arthur's equally French queen... 
Hey! What could happen?)
Ahem, sorry.
Her biggest threat to Arthur, aside from the obvious, was pointing out how fleeting his world actually was, and how little time he had to achieve the ideals he wanted for a better society before the world changed around him. 

Before I continue praising the cast, I'm going to complain fiercely that this play is closing so quickly, and not because it was awesomely written, staged and performed.
OK, not only because of that.
I'm complaining more because the ENTIRE POINT of this play is the importance of legends and stories in the growth and dissemination of ideals to allow the world to become a better place.
This play illustrated that perfectly, showed why the ideals of equality, mercy, using "might for right" and the betterment society ARE important to keep increasing over time, and the role that stories play in promoting and reaching for those ideals.
And it got less than half a year run.

As I said, (frequently) the whole cast was phenomenal, whether performing, or effortlessly moving sections of the ornate but minimal sets around to the music. Combined with some cool projection technology, and the cast occasionally running up and down the aisles, it made for very immersive scenes. 
The three scenes at once, interspersed between:
Mordred riling up the knights, 
Arthur verbally sparring (and losing) with Morgan le Fay, 
and Lancelot and Guenevere's night of way-hey-hey,
was amazingly executed and wildly impressive. 
The high caliber of material and performers meant the show didn't need a gigantic cast, or insanely complex and special effect filled sets. 

Anthony Michael Lopez, Danny Wolohan and Fergie Phillippe as the three main knights (Dinadan, Lionel and Sagramore)  besides singing, acting and fighting- all expertly- provided another service. They were Devil's Advocates to King Arthur's progressive, idealistic plans. However, their performances walked a fine line. While they were clearly meant to be in the wrong, they presented it in a way that made their point understandable. Who hasn't said, "Things are changing too fast" at one time or another, even when change is for the better? They follow Arthur, but they also raise the perceived impracticality of some of the directions he wants. This, yet again, spins everything back around to the importance of storytelling and legends, Perfection isn't really attainable, but the dream of it can move people and society forward generation after generation.

The show and message all came to a wonderous conclusion when Arthur was at the point where he'd lost everything - the woman he loved, his best friend, and a peaceful, educated, progressive kingdom. Then, thanks to young Tom of Warwick (AKA Sir Thomas Mallory- how cool is that!?) he learned the dream... 
the legend...
the IDEAL of Camelot
still existed.
Knowing that England would still move toward that ideal meant he won.
(And a triumphant reprise of the title song and Tom's performance making us believe he  actually was running all the way back to Brittan helped quite a bit to get that across.)

Camden McKinnon (Tom) was kind enough to be another of the few who came out to sign autographs at the stage door. His Mother (if I stalked his Instagram properly) walked behind the crowd, proudly documenting of every one of his signatures. Even for a star at Lincoln Center. Mom's are gonna Mom. 
As she more than earned the right to.

Along with Tom and Lance 2 signing at the stage door, there was Paul Whitty, Lancelot's long suffering manservant, Dap, who I think is his uncle. I really need to read the source material again. He was a hoot both on stage and in person. Several other actors and musicians smiled and waved to our appreciative group while heading out to take a break between shows. And, as always, Theater Fans impressed me with how much they respected the performers who were not looking for interactions.

More extra thanks go to Marilee Talkington who stopped on her way back to the theater (with bags full of snacks) to chat a bit with us and the couple of other families who had continued hanging around well after most of the stage door crowd left, reluctant to let the day's phenomenal experience end. We told her how disappointed we were that a show this fantastic had such a short run, and she mentioned most of the cast was kind of hunkering down together because of thatinstead of coming out. (Which is 100% understandable.) She signed Playbills, and when Anabelle asked Aurora why she spontaneously started speaking to the signer in a British accent, our new friend became "more alive" in that magical way only stage actors can. 

In full on Morgan le Fay mode while signing with flourishes and flounces, she confirmed the accuracy of Aurora's choice by proclaiming:
"This is CAMELOT! 
Everyone has an British accent!"

When done, we tried to walk down Broadway to pass through Times Square, but my phone was all pissy because I didn't let it direct us driving in. Therefore, we walked down Columbus and had to cut over a couple of blocks. The detour allowed us to see the after effects of the dangerous and violent gang of pigeons who had captured and eviscerated multiple entire pizzas. Times Square was at levels of "jam packed sea of humanity" normally witnessed on a Saturday evening, prompting a rapid journey. We hurried past a pair of "Cha Cha Slide" demonstrations and waved at the George M. Cohan statue over a mob of copyright infringing characters.  
One of the scantily clad "showgirlish" ladies was walking with her 
patriotically painted posterior ahead of us for several blocks. Honestly, I thought she was going off shift and planning to take the subway like that. (Because... Manhattan.) However, she stepped back into the pedestrian zone when she found a clearer space. 

At Port Authority we stopped at the Macaron stand to annoy the vendor the same way my college friends and I used to torment the Dunkin Donuts guy, by each selecting three flavors out of a dozen. Since the only other person at the stand was a guy who may have been stoned and was definitely inventorying the entire case before making his choices, I didn't feel as bad as I normally would ordering that way.

We caught the bus, and rode back through the tunnel with relative ease. (It still feels wildly out of control sitting in traffic and not driving.) We had a very nice seafood dinner at the Bonefish Grill on the way home. While it's usually incredibly easy to eat healthy there, due to the sad and boring level of lunch in one of the food capitals of the world. I chose a dish with some cheese mixed in the stuffing for dinner. 
So there.

Yes, this was a long review. 
Yes, I felt the need to gush above and beyond my normal levels, and get this posted as soon as possible after seeing the show.
Yes, I'm going to continue complaining that this amazingly emotional and intellectual experience is leaving Lincoln Center far too soon.

Because storytelling and heroic myths are hugely important to human nature for inspiring people that both they, and the world they live in, can be better.

"Don't let it be forgot
That there once was a spot,
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot."

(Yeah, everyone uses that quote.
but it freakin' works!)


Antonia said...

First of all, brilliant theater review! Quite impressed with the detail and analysis. I loved the anecdotes and humor thrown in throughout. Also, incredibly rare that you got to see two actors for one role in the same performance, that is quite lucky (or unlucky for the first actor I guess!) Also I empathize with your Panera incident. A well meaning cashier at a museum asked if we needed the senior rate and I forcefully, practically yelled, NO. Sad that this show closed but so great that all four of you got to enjoy it!

Jeff McGinley said...

Thank you. I've noticed I write short reviews for stuff I like, long reviews for stuff I don't like (to explain why) and really long reviews for stuff that moves me.

It was interesting seeing two takes on the same character so close together.

I've gotten the occasional senior discount without asking, that I only learn about when Anabelle sees the receipt at home and mocks me mercilessly.

Kristyn Gordon said...

I guess it isn't a "bad" thing to be called sir and offered a seat? Quite miraculous actually to have happened in Manhattan? I am definitely going to investigate this lottery concept - amazing!

Jeff McGinley said...

Thank you.
The lottery results were stunning.
I've always believed New Yorker may be louder and in more of a hurry than the rest of the world, but don't mistake that for a lack of manners and politeness.
thanx again for reading.