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I had forgotten how much I loved Camelot growing up. We had the Broadway cast album, and since children by definition have no judgment, I didn't know squadoosh about lousy film casting. I've heard the music occasionally ever since then, but musicals are meant to be performed, not just sung. It's musical theater, not recital fodder.

A couple of weeks ago, PBS's Live from Lincoln Center broadcast a semi-staged production of the show from Avery Fisher Hall. With the New York Philharmonic up on stage, the production featured Marin Mazzie as Guenevere, Gabriel Byrne as Arthur, and Nathan Gunn as Lancelot. These are actors, not just singers (certainly not in Byrne's case), and miraculously, you care about the story and the characters, no mean feat in a 50-year-old show. (Also remarkable, given that the orchestra was probably rooting for Mordred.)

Camelot wasn't as popular as Lerner & Loewe's previous collaboration, My Fair Lady, for a couple of reasons. Most shows are a series of catastrophes, but the lead-up to Camelot's premiere was worse than most, with the director and the composer suffering health problems. The tone of the show changes darkly at intermission, leading to an ending that's bittersweet at best.

Like all good tragedies, it's both political and personal, compounding the sense of loss. Arthur's courage to be king comes through his wife. The personal betrayal eventually undermines the more lofty ideals. So much for Arthur's attempted, ah, compartmentalization at the end of Act I. Leaving the personal matters aside, Camelot is also about the ability of a free society under the rule of law to deal with those who would use that freedom to hollow it out from within. Cutting down Mordred's role and cutting out "Fie on Goodness" unfortunately minimizes this aspect of the show.

The casting and the performances are note-perfect. Gabriel Byrne charms as the slightly world-weary Arthur, rejuvenated by the arrival of Lancelot at court.

But while Camelot is Arthur's story, Camelot is Guenevere's and Lancelot's. If Broadway still had material capable of creating stars, Marin Mazzie would own the place. She's 48, and yet carries off Gennie's transformation from girlish mischief to sadder-wiser-older ex-Queen-now-sister with complete persuasiveness. Watch her face, her eyes in the two big Act I solos. What looks on TV like a little overacting is perfect for the stage:

She's devoted her career to musical theater, and art form that probably doesn't do someone with her talent proper justice any more.

By comparison, Nathan Gunn is visiting from the world of opera, which should require acting as well. Watch the little gestures, the hand movements, how he conveys Lance's cocksureness. We've heard this song a million times, but Gunn, French accent and all, makes it funny, and not in some self-conscious, post-modern, Lance-really-has-a-man-crush-on-Arthur sort of way, but in a way that does the material justice.

The two of them together are pure dynamite:

The minor roles are cast for laughs - Christopher Lloyd as Pellinore, Fran Drescher as the chocolate-hungry Morgan Le Fey, Stacy Keach as Merlin. The costumers dressed Mordred as a Goth, which is very, very funny.

Watching the snippets on YouTube is fun. But right now, it's probably the only premium that could get me to contribute to PBS.

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