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Gabriel Byrne charms as Arthur in ‘Camelot’

He can't sing and he can't dance, but Gabriel Byrne can charm — and he did while portraying the chivalrous King Arthur in "Camelot."
/ Source: The Associated Press

He can't sing and he can't dance, but Gabriel Byrne can charm — and he did while portraying the chivalrous King Arthur in "Camelot."

After playing the tormented shrink Dr. Paul Weston in HBO's "In Treatment," the Irish actor went from couch to court, starring Wednesday in Lerner and Loewe's beloved 1960 musical.

It was the first of five performances through Saturday, with one of the world's greatest pit orchestras — the New York Philharmonic — continuing its recent annual tradition of producing semi-staged musicals.

The 70 instrumentalists, conducted by Broadway veteran Paul Gemignani, weren't UNDER the stage at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall but ON it — in the back. With only a few full rehearsals, the coordination was quite dexterous because there could be no eye contact between the actors and music director.

With the orchestra playing, Byrne spoke most of his lyrics, occasionally singing when the music fell within his range.

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He seemed nervous when he first appeared after being summoned by the dreadlocked and red-cloaked magician Merlyn (delightfully portrayed by Stacy Keach). Of course, Byrne was depicting a king anxious about meeting his bride-to-be.

Whatever inner stiffness he may have had vanished by his first big number — "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight." Although he often beat the orchestra to the end of phrases, his overall performance as the idealistic and forgiving monarch was endearing.

Noteworthy performancesHis queen, Guenevere, had no trouble singing. Marin Mazzie, whose Broadway credits include "Kiss Me, Kate," "Ragtime" and "Monty Python's Spamalot," was in her element. Her sweet soprano voice and great looks were perfect for the role of the queen who falls in love with a knight.

Completing the triangle was heartthrob baritone Nathan Gunn as Sir Lancelot. He made his presence known immediately upon entering with testosterone swagger, his powerful voice booming the "Camelot" battle cry and then segueing into "C'est Moi." His big number — the Act 2 ballad "If Ever I Would Leave You" — got the loudest ovation of the evening from the near-capacity audience of about 2,400.

The cast also included Christopher Lloyd as Pellinore and Fran Drescher as Morgan le Fey. Both brought their trademark shtick — Lloyd sounded like the perennially inebriated Jim of the 1980s sitcom "Taxi"; Drescher, with her nasal Queens accent, was as ditzy as "The Nanny."

Bobby Steggert as Arthur's evil bastard son Mordred and the young Rishi Mutalik as Tom of Warwick added their own noteworthy performances.

Although it was considered semi-staged, the production directed by Lonny Price and produced by Thomas Z. Shepard was pretty much what one would expect to see in Broadway theaters about a mile south. The first six rows of seats were removed to extend the stage, which was rounded to accommodate the orchestra, cast and Arthur's egalitarian Round Table. (At one point, the table rose toward a giant golden crown above, a la the Heaviside Layer in "Cats.")

With dramatic lighting by Paul Miller, the darkened Avery Fisher Hall never looked better. The costumes by Tracy Christensen were eye-catching. Josh Prince's choreography was effective, especially the jousting sequence in which five dancers bounced in waves — horselike — while carrying the fighters and catching them as they were felled by Lancelot.

The Tony-winning show, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, first appeared on Broadway a month after John F. Kennedy was elected president.

It became associated with the Kennedy administration after Jacqueline Kennedy revealed following her husband's assassination in 1963 that he had been fond of the musical, particularly Arthur's final lyrics: "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot."