It’s that old familiar story: boy becomes king, king gets queen, king loses queen. Do it today, and it’s a reality show, followed by recriminations and appearances on talk shows. But in the day of Lerner and Loewe, it was the musical Camelot, which for a brief moment, when our hearts were all ripped apart, became a way of remembering the promise and class that was Jack Kennedy. It was the living invocation of the great things we believed we would do, and the honor-drenched lives we believed we would live, when we were young. Now, at Olney Theater Center, we can be young again.
Olney’s rip-roaring production takes us into the heart of King Arthur’s (Todd Alan Johnson) reluctant pursuit of power and glory, and his happier embrace of honor, high deeds and the love of the succulent Guinevere (Patricia Hurley). Hurley sparkles, especially early in the play when she thrills at the idea men might fight over her (“The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and “Take Me to the Fair”). She fills the theatre with the charm of her sweet and beautiful voice and her winning personality, which attracts both Arthur and Lancelot (Aaron Ramey).
Ah, Lancelot. He is surely the snake in the garden, but what a great snake he is! He’s vain enough to think that Carly Simon’s song is about him (He has his own song about himself, “C’est Moi,” which had the audience in stitches.) Yet he also manages to make his character believable and sympathetic. Ramey and Hurley have a real chemistry as the star-crossed pair, and their love ballads (Lancelot’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” and Guinevere’s “I Loved You Once in Silence”) are highlights of the performance.
There are some superb performances in supporting roles, most particularly Bill Largess as both Merlin and Pellinore. Evan Casey provides both comedy and an appropriate degree of menace in a fine performance as Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son who is determined to bring down Camelot.
Amidst all this, Johnson’s performance as King Arthur is only capable. He sings in an articulate and expressive manner. He demonstrates anguish over the fate of his marriage to Guinevere and his new order of justice symbolized by the Round Table. Yet his understated style and dry humor serve to diminish the emotional impact of the story.
Director and choreographer Stephen Nachamie’s Camelot is as polished and professional a production as any musical that I have even seen at Olney (a very high standard to meet). He orchestrates the movement of the large cast and the multiple set pieces smoothly while producing moments of striking stagecraft. Jeremy W. Foil’s set and Eric Propp’s costumes are as simple yet sumptious as Camelot’s classic score.
The orchestra, led by Christopher Youstra, manages to achieve a full and satisfying sound from six instrumentalists. Meredith Mancini’s harp contributes an appropriately magical sound to many of the songs.
Camelot was not a critical favorite when initially produced despite the sterling cast lead by Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet. Many reviews compared it unfavorably to the other Lerner-Loewe musical playing on Broadway, My Fair Lady.
Yet Camelot is a highly accessible and entertaining musical, especially when the production plays up the music and the magic over the occasionally talky book. This Olney Theatre production is ideal holiday entertainment for theatre fans of all ages.
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Nachamie
Musical Direction by Christopher Youstra
Presented by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Steven McKnight