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Churchillian Eloquence

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You’d think that if anybody understood how little is needed for a satisfying night at the theater, it’d be the New York Philharmonic. They hire great musicians. They invite an audience to listen. Everybody leaves happy.

So it was puzzling to detect a note of apology in the way the Philharmonic billed its recent Camelot as “semi-staged.” Audiences at the four-night run might have expected to see actors in basic black with scripts in hand; instead, they got a huge cast, elaborate costumes, complex choreography, sumptuous lighting, and pennants right out of Medieval Times. If this is semi-, what’s staged?

There’s still a weird prejudice around town that musicals require massive scenery or bulky apparatus to be legit, in spite of compact triumphs as diverse as Passing Strange and John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd. With the Philharmonic working its usual wonders with Frederick Loewe’s score, all the show needed was talented actors and a competent director to get Alan Jay Lerner’s words across. This is where Lonny Price’s jumbled production broke down.

The cast looked like a parody of a star-heavy Broadway musical, or one of those dreams where people from different parts of your life inexplicably collide. It’s always nice to see Christopher Lloyd turn up onstage (as the old-timey grifter Pellinore), and Stacy Keach nearly redeemed Merlin’s Battlestar Galactica–style getup. But nothing in this knightly tale turned out to be more valiant than underequipped Gabriel Byrne trying to sing and dance well enough to play King Arthur, or more fantastical than casting the squawking Fran Drescher as a wicked sorceress. The best I can say for the busy show is that it brought back fond memories of last year’s Philharmonic production of My Fair Lady, played to perfection by Kelsey Grammer, Kelli O’Hara, and Charles Kimbrough. As Higgins, Eliza, and Pickering, they could put on a helluva show on a street corner, in their pajamas.

Top Girls
By Caryl Churchill.
Biltmore Theatre. Through June 22.

Camelot
Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Music by Frederick Loewe.
New York Philharmonic. Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.


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