It's a little thing -- you might not even notice it -- but in the opening scene of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, which is playing through Sunday at the Muny, watch the way Mark Jacoby uses his cloak. Before Jacoby dons the heavy garment, he is still Wart, the insecure and unlikely successor to the throne. His awkward, gangly arms flail like frustrated Frisbees. But the moment the cloak is draped over his shoulders, it becomes an extension of his body. As his arms retreat behind the fabric, Jacoby acquires a still poise and a commanding presence. Wart becomes Arthur, king of England. In a fully realized performance, this is a wonderful example of an actor exploiting his costume to bring his role to life.
One of the best things the Muny does is casting; one of the worst things the Muny does is to not tell St. Louisans who is in those casts. So you're probably unaware that this week the Muny has brought out its heavy hitters. Camelot offers as close to a Broadway-caliber cast as anything you've seen in Forest Park all summer -- or, for that matter, in St. Louis all year.
For starters, Kim Crosby, who was such a delightful Cinderella in the original version of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, brings her lyric soprano to Guenevere. Crosby can sing a lesser-known song such as "Before I Gaze at You Again" and make us wonder why we've overlooked it all these years. She can sing a popular tune like "I Loved You Once in Silence" and make us realize that Frederick Loewe's score is possessed of a haunting quality reminiscent of Schubert. (A special nod goes to music director Allan Lewis and the Muny Orchestra for making Loewe's music sound so rich and lush.)
Then, of course, there is Jacoby. Talk about Broadway caliber: He was a dashing Gaylord Ravenal in the acclaimed Hal Prince revival of Show Boat and a highly effective Father in Ragtime. Here, in a performance noted for its nuance and shading (which are all too rare in musicals), he takes Arthur from insecure youth to doting husband to humiliated cuckold. Watching Jacoby act is like watching a tightrope walker. You keep wondering: When is he going to misstep? When is he going to fall? He never does.
Jacoby is the sort of actor who can transform a speech into a story -- which is important in Camelot, because there's a lot of story to tell and not all of it is interesting. Camelot is now, and always has been, a victim of its own excess. There are undeveloped characters, such as Merlin the Magician and Mordred the Bastard. The script is constantly bogging down in its own exposition. And apparently no one ever had the courage to tell Alan Jay Lerner that he was a better lyricist than a book writer, because he constantly wrote presumably humorous dialogue that fell flat. Nowhere in all his musicals is this more evident than here, in the character of Pellinore, who adds nothing to the show except time.
Yet we choose to overlook these shortcomings because Camelot offers moments of theater magic. The post-joust scene in which Lancelot (Nat Chandler) restores a just-killed knight of the Round Table to life continues to elicit goosebumps, regardless of how many times we've seen the show before. And of course Arthur's final chance encounter, in which a young boy (Stefan Rich) helps the disillusioned king realize that his life has been worth living after all, is one of the classic scenes of the American musical theater.
Is Camelot a classic musical? Yes. Is it a great musical? No. Perhaps Lerner explained its enduring appeal best. Although he conceded that Camelot is "pockmarked with flaws," he also admitted that it was his favorite of all his musicals. "I love the naked idealism of it," he once told an interviewer. America has endured rough times of late, but during the same week that nine coal miners, written off as dead, can be restored to life, perhaps we all can benefit from some soaring, melodic naked idealism.