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‘Camelot’ Comes Courting With Classy King Arthur

The most famous King Arthurs of all were household names: Richard Burton (Broadway) and Richard Harris (the movie and innumerable revivals).

James Warwick, who stars in this touring version of “Camelot,” is also a household name, provided it is a household partial to those classy British mysteries on public television. Warwick, a classically trained British actor, was the co-star of three Agatha Christie mysteries which appeared on the “Mobil Mystery Theatre”: “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?,” “The Secret Adversary” and “The Seven Dials Mystery.”

His co-star in that series was no slouch: Sir John Gielgud.

He also starred as Tommy Berresford in another “Mystery Theatre” presentation, “Partners in Crime.” And his biggest PBS triumph was his leading role in the “Masterpiece Theatre” series “Lillie.”

So Warwick may not exactly be one of the Richards - Burton or Harris - but he has the same beautifully modulated British acting voice which we have come to expect from our King Arthurs. It simply wouldn’t do to utter those immortal words “for one brief shining moment” in some kind of Bronx accent.

“Warwick has excellent vocal phrasing,” wrote the English newspaper The Guardian during a British tour of the show. “And all the attitudes of a chivalrous knight are there in a notable charming performance.”

And lest you think Warwick is all Old Vic and “Masterpiece Theatre” credentials, he also is the man who originated the role of Brad in the original “Rocky Horror Show” in London in 1974. However, he does not exactly consider himself a songand-dance man.

Warwick, reached by phone from an earlier stop on the tour, said he considers himself “more an actor than a singer,” which is exactly the kind of performer Lerner and Loewe had in mind when they wrote the part.

“After all, it was written for Richard Burton,” said Warwick.

King Arthur’s songs, while clever and memorable, require no vocal pyrotechnics. His big numbers are more distinguished for their wit and conversational style: “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight,” “How to Handle a Woman” and the title song.

The role of Lancelot is designed for a more powerful voice, and this production features the American opera singer Daniel Narducci in that role. Narducci has sung with the Naples Philharmonic, the Washington Opera, the Central City Opera and Opera Columbus. He also has plenty of Broadway-style experience, having sung “A Night on Broadway” with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and “Broadway Night at the Pops” with the Indianapolis Symphony.

It is Narducci who will sing what has become one of the best-known songs to emerge from the show, “If Ever Would I Leave You.”

Songs like this, and the show itself, have become such standards of American theater that it is easy to forget that this show’s beginnings were almost disastrous. For one thing, the show followed Lerner and Loewe’s previous offering, “My Fair Lady,” a tough act to follow. For another thing, the pre-opening expenses were so high critics took to calling it “Costalot.”

Then, the out-of-town premiere in Toronto was so long it didn’t get over until 12:30 a.m. Alan Jay Lerner checked into the hospital with bleeding ulcers, and director Moss Hart suffered a coronary.

Hart never recovered, but Lerner did, and soon he had to take over the director’s duties, which couldn’t have done much for his ulcers. It was Lerner who eventually ushered the show onto Broadway, with Robert Goulet as Lancelot, Julie Andrews as Guenevere and Burton as King Arthur.

It opened on Dec. 3, 1960, to - well, not quite universal acclaim. The New York reviewers’ scorecard went like this: one rave review, one favorable review, two mixed reviews and one unfavorable review.

“If it’s pageantry and spectacle you’re willing to settle for, ‘Camelot’ offers a lot,” wrote Robert Coleman in the Daily Mirror. “But in our book, it’s no ‘My Fair Lady.’ We suspect that Lerner set out to pen a serious satire on knighthood in flower and missed the boat.”

However, John Chapman of the Daily News called it “magnificent,” with songs that are “lovely and unfailingly right.”

This, too, was the verdict of the audience, which made it a smash hit. It ran for 873 performances.

The reputation of “Camelot” was also enhanced by a political connection. John F. Kennedy quoted the “brief shining moment” lyrics in his 1961 inaugural speech, thus creating the myth of JFK’s “new Camelot.”

And then, in 1968, it was made into a successful movie, starring Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero.

It remains a top touring attraction - Harris has made a career out of it, and even Robert Goulet has toured in the role of Arthur - and a staple of summer stock.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story “Camelot,” tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m., Opera House Tickets: $29.50 and $27.50

This sidebar appeared with story “Camelot,” tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m., Opera House Tickets: $29.50 and $27.50

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