It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Lerner & Lowe musicals. Hot on the heels of the Shaw Festival’s My Fair Lady, the famed duo’s Camelot was the second show and first musical of the 2011 season for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. At the Broadway premières of both (1956—Mark Hellinger Theatre, 1960—Majestic Theatre respectively), it must have been as exciting as it was gratifying for the creators to hear their words and music as intended (more or less: every new show is “tinkered” with at various times during the run).
Back then, the voices of the cast and sound of the orchestra got their final polish via the conductor whose gestures were, virtually, a human mixing board—a split-second later, the natural acoustics of the halls had the final say as to how everything was heard by the crowd.
Once in a while, a line was lost or a lyric covered but those were small prices to pay for experiencing the show in all of its natural glory.
Nowadays, like the “victory” of digital over analogue recordings, sound reinforcement is the holy grail of music theatre. Body mics, orchestra mics and stage mics gobble up the songs, accompaniments and dialogue then are digested in a sound board where they are subject to the largely pre-programmed aural whims of directors and designers before flooding the room through an unmovable battery of speakers.
No longer do we experience live musical masterpieces as they were originally conceived. (More recent productions, knowing full well what tools will be brought into play, are designed/composed/written around that reality to considerable effect: look no further than Rent—tracing its lineage back to La Bohème—as a prime example as to how modern technology can work in concert with the artistic trust).
With older shows, the question remains: are audiences truly experiencing the art as imagined or merely settling for a facsimile? (Is a copy of the Mona Lisa still as haunting as the original? Can the majority of musical devotees tell the difference; do they care? Do the purists sit a home reliving stellar performances, listening to their scratchy, ever-warm vinyl discs?)
If not, why have stage directors (the final arbiters) allowed/insisted on artificial sound, emanating preponderantly from a fixed source?
“The audience will ‘get’ every word,” say many. Really? Both Shaw and Stratford have within their companies some of the country’s finest actors. Both troupes seldom bother with any sort of sound reinforcement when bringing drama of all stripes to the stage in their respective Festival Theatres—Christopher Plummer and Sharry Flett are not known for failing to convey the text. Why should morphing their spoken lines to sung lyrics suddenly require an electronic boost? (When was the last time either venue presented a classic musical “mic-less”?) Instead, the subtleties of the performers’ skills are lost in the mix—worse: not a few of them, accordingly, let the sound designer project for them so that—at both festivals this year—more words are lost than would otherwise be the case.
“It’s easier to hear the orchestra,” is another oft quoted justification.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, the orchestra pit is somewhat “bunkered” but not enough to create any appreciable time lag. Simultaneously, the conductor can be seen by cast and musicians alike. During My Fair Lady, music director Paul Sportelli seemed resigned to merely beating time rather than sculpting the music (perhaps sound designers ought to get assistant conductor credits).
Here in Stratford, the legendary thrust stage requires the players to be placed above and behind the action. (The Avon Theatre—like the Shaw’s Royal George—has a traditional pit, making both venues much better suited to musical presentations created prior to speaker towers.)
If the mics and speakers are meant to overcome the inherent difficulties of a heard-but-not-seen orchestra and conductor, it isn’t working. Throughout Camelot, conductor Rick Fox did his level best to keep ensemble tight, but anyone listening attentively had to endure a litany of ragged results—just getting through the tricky bits seemed to be the goal.
Intriguingly, the Stratford dance corps (dance captain Julius Sermonia leading his colleagues by marvellous example) produced much more consistently “together” results: they could hear/feel the music above them and had fewer consonants to keep in sync than the far more exposed songs of the leads.
Will anyone at either festival have the temerity to pull the sound board plug and trust their talent? “Ah yes, wouldn’t that be loverly?”
Now to the performance, capsule style.
After the faux drumroll, get-them-on-their-feet for the anthem ruse delivered the first laugh into the “Overture,” seeing young Arthur flit about the stage as a real bird of prey might have set the tone for the magic to come.
Geraint Wyn Davies made the most of King Arthur’s multilayered character but, alas, cannot sing (as the microphones painstakingly revealed). Kaylee Harwood’s Guenevere was vocally much better just wanting a consistent phrasing plan to bring this role into the realm of greatness.
Easily the finest voice on the stage (and delivering the only vrai dynamic contrast of the night, albeit in deference to the range), Jonathan Winsby was an ideally haughty Lancelot. Going to his great reward in style as Merlyn and keeping King Arthur’s Court relatively honest as King Pellinore, Brent Carver was doubly welcome.
Mike Nadajewski’s delectably slimy Mordred was a fine bit of dirty business, even as Lucy Peacock’s turn as Morgan le Key was a hoot of incessant hunger and royal jelly.
Aside from oddly creaking tree branches in the early going, Debra Hanson’s sets were marvels of textures and tone (sadly at odds with the more pastel hue of the combined musical effect). Warren Carlyle’s spirited choreography fully utilized the forces at his disposal—especially the marvellously energetic/athletic/dexterous men (what fun to nearly walk perpendicular to the floor!). And a quick shout-out to Marcus Nance: here’s a voice that should be heard more often.
Director Gary Griffin established a quick pace that kept most of the scenes moving ahead with the greatest of ease and purpose. When the music fights its way back to the top of the priority list rather than playing second fiddle to visual concerns, then the chance of Stratford becoming Broadway North becomes a tantalizing possibility. JWR