One Brief Shining Moment

Published: Wednesday, February 25, 2015 By: Bruce Apar Source: Bruce The Blog, Pennysaver

Camelot’ is playing at Westchester Broadway Theatre through April 5.

In August 1964 at the Democratic national convention in Atlantic City, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was introduced to the delegates to pay homage to his fallen brother, President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 10 months earlier. After approaching the podium, Bobby Kennedy would not begin his speech for 22 minutes. That’s how long it took for the emotionally pent-up crowd to express its respect, its profound grief, its longing, by showering RFK with an ovation arguably unprecedented in convention history for its ardor and length. By way of analogy, that ovation lasted as long as a half-hour TV show minus the commercials - 

After his remarks, a tribute film about JFK was shown. The closing moments, as heart-wrenching as imaginable, showed the President, who suffered debilitating back pain, bending over as son John, Jr. (known then as John-John) ran to his daddy, who stopped short of picking him up. The soundtrack swelled with the title song of 1960 Broadway musical “Camelot,” by the “My Fair Lady” composing team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe — “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” 

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Guinevere actress Jennifer Hope Wills with columnist Bruce ‘The Blog’ Apar.

The stage adaptation of T.H. White’s book “The Once and Future King,” about the legend of King Arthur and his Roundtable, had opened the year John Kennedy triumphed over Richard Nixon to become, at 43, the youngest chief executive elected in the nation’s history.

It was reported that the vibrant President, who, with his photogenic wife Jacqueline, had captured the imagination of an optimistic America ready for adventure and renewal, was fond of listening to the “Camelot” cast album before retiring at night.

In the decades since, the very word Camelot has come to denote the shining, if painfully brief, Kennedy era. Sure, there’s a tendency to idealize the period that also gave us the scary-as-hell Cuban missile crisis, which prompted an 11-year-old to wonder nervously if America was going to war. On balance, though, it was a heady time that was upended in the worst way possible. For a Baby Boomer like this reporter, it’s hard not to drift back a half-century to that daze while watching the marvelous and poignant production of

“Camelot” now at Westchester Broadway Theater in Elmsford. I was intimately familiar with the music from listening to the album as a youngster — enough so to silently lip-sync the lyrics to every song during the Westchester Broadway Theater performance. But I had never seen it on stage, and “Camelot” is among the best productions I’ve seen at WBT. The music is clever and refreshing – with a Broadway bounce and sheen but also textured with consummate craft to evoke days of yore. The stars of the original “Camelot” themselves evoke magical memories: Acting giant Richard Burton as Arthur, musical goddess Julie Andrews as Guinevere. The music is rich and joyously original in both its frivolity and romanticism (the soaring ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You” became Robert Goulet’s trademark).

Having never seen the show before, what struck me was the narrative, known as a musical’s “book” (also by Lerner). It was easy to see why JFK took a shining to the social and political sentiments expressed through song and dialogue. Not to mention, let’s face it, the Kennedy family during the height of its reign as a cultural touchstone, was akin to royalty, so humorous numbers like “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” would resonate with a clan blessed by immense wealth and privilege. At one point, Arthur, who is not humble of birth but readily relates to the basic decency of the general population, says, “Violence is not strength. Compassion is not weakness. We are civilized.” Our entire world sure could use more of that ethos right now. Arthur also is the vessel through which the brazen adage “might is right” is moderated to become “might for right.” Yet another lesson in righteous morality is dispensed in the epigram, “Revenge is the most useless of causes.”

Philosophizing aside, for sheer entertainment, it’s hard to beat the value at Westchester Broadway Theater, which combines a full dinner with the ticket for the show. “Camelot” is among the best productions I’ve seen there in recent years. The cast is first-rate, led by Clark Carmichael as a shy, affable Arthur, and Jennifer Hope Wills — who starred on Broadway in “Phantom of the Opera’ — as a ravishing, golden-voiced Guinevere. On the dark side, as Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred, Jordan Wolfe injects delicious dread into the second act. Martin Van Treuren is an impressive double-threat as both magician Merlyn and daffy King Pellinore. The handsomely-mounted show is fun, touching and will transport you back, not only 1500 years to the 5th Century, but also 50 years, to a brief shining moment that some of us always will hold on to as part of who we were and who we became. “Camelot” plays through April 5.

You also won’t want to miss the next show, which is my candidate for Broadway’s best musical ever: West Side Story, playing at WBT April 9-July 5. For more information on all the great entertainment waiting for you at this Broadway-quality Westchester institution, visit broadwaytheater.com.