The mythical city of Camelot has always been little more than a dream – a forest kingdom of unsurpassed beauty where magicians and enchantresses gleefully meddle in human affairs, knights battle dragons and other fantastical beasts, and maidens swoon accordingly. And ruling over it all, King Arthur and his loyal knights of the round table, aspiring to the ideals of justice, equality and the use of “might” for “right.” Sure, it’s romanticized (some might say treacly), but for more than five centuries the legend of Camelot has endured, even while its promised principles continue to elude us.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of the classic musical Camelot, based on the legend as adapted by the T.H. White novel The Once and Future King, constructs this enchanted city of our imaginations, only to abruptly plunge it into darkness and despair, from which it never fully recovers.
Director Alan Paul acknowledges that when he first considered staging the nearly 60-year-old musical, he was put off but its “pageantry and sentimental idealism,” but that he later came to see the story as an expression of our current political climate. In a world Paul describes as “only becoming nastier and more cynical,” King Arthur represents a “thoughtful and benevolent leader in the middle of the Dark Ages.”
Yet, from the audience, Paul’s production feels more like a cautionary tale against hope. The first act promises the magic of Camelot, with curtains opening on a gnarled, larger-than-life silver tree branch reaching down from somewhere out of sight to brush the forest floor. A young and puckish Arthur (Ken Clark) perches in a tree branch, hoping to catch sight of his promised bride, Guenevere (Alexandra Silber) while Merlyn (Ted van Griethuysen), the magician and Arthur’s trusted advisor, attempts to coax him down. Merlyn reminds Arthur that he must learn to think for himself, especially since Merlyn will soon lose his powers and have to leave Arthur to fend for himself.
Minutes later Guenevere (or “Jenny”) appears beneath Arthur’s tree, having escaped her guards, to bemoan her upcoming marriage to an unknown king and wishing for more time to enjoy the “harmless, convivial joys” of maidenhood, such as having knights fight to death over her hand and maybe, just maybe, starting a war.
After a brief meet-cute during which Jenny falls both for Arthur (unbeknownst to her, the king) and the promised wonders of Camelot (where by law the “climate must be perfect all the year”) the couple is wed and the plot skips five years into their future. Still blissfully married, they hatch a plan to assemble the knights of the round table.
Filled with hope, the first act of Camelot unfurls in a riot of vivid colors and joyous music. In the enchanted forest, Jenny revels in the fleshly joys of the “lusty month of May,” when maidens “break their vows” and go “blissfully astray.” Joined by a gaggle of maidens in flowing, candy-hued dresses and knights ensconced in gleaming armor (with gorgeous costumes overall by Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic), the ensemble cast performs a lively ballet. The audience immediately responds to Silber’s performance, which thrums with humor and an undercurrent of playful wickedness. Silber’s vibrant, powerful soprano sails above the cast’s already richly-layered sound.
closes July 8, 2018
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Enter Lancelot du Lac (Nick Fitzer), a preening, pompous—yet devoutly pious—French knight whose heart is set on a seat at Arthur’s round table. Like Silber, Fitzer’s performance in “C’est Moi,” in which he announces himself to Camelot’s court as “the one” they have all been waiting for—the model of physical perfection with a saintly soul—is skillfully silly and sends a ripple of energy through the audience. Fitzer’s baritone is truly swoon-worthy, particularly in his later romantic ballads with Silber.
Overall, Camelot’s vocal performances are to-a-one stunning. Perhaps due to the complexity of Loewe’s score—demanding both a wide vocal range and agility—STC’s production favors a more formal, operatic sound. This formality sometimes leads to more jarring transitions between dialogue and song. More problematic, however, are the thick accents (English, Scottish and French) rendering some lyrics indecipherable and leaving the audience scratching its head.
As the first act is drawing to a close, a single moment of “divine intervention” (itself a departure from the original script) intended as miraculous seems to cast a curse over all of Camelot. Jenny, who despised the pretentious Lance for robbing her of Arthur’s attention, is suddenly helpless to his charms and desperately in love.
Yet, shortly into the second act, I began to feel as though I had mistakenly walked out of one theatre and wandered into another show entirely—perhaps a Shakespearean tragedy? As Jenny and Lance struggle to stave off their desires, Arthur is suddenly confronted by a previously-unknown, illegitimate son, Mordred (Patrick Vaill). Seeking revenge against Arthur for his fatherless childhood, Mordred sets out to dismantle the round table and destroy Arthur’s legacy.
Clark, whose earlier performance as the young, naïve Arthur is at once wily and ebullient, swiftly unravels into a sullen and broken old man. Pacing the stage, he becomes a railing, raving King Arthur, spitting his distress at the audience with the gravity of Richard III. This shift in the weightiness of the play endures throughout a second act that felt tediously long, though had half the running time of the first act. By the time Camelot arrives at its last (hopeful) gasp, it is too much to ask of the audience to find redemption (even with a child actor as winsome and compelling as Trinity Sky Debreu).
Camelot is ultimately an enjoyable night of theatre with thoughtfully rendered performances, adroit musical and dance numbers and—yes—a great deal of pageantry. I only wish that the second act could have incorporated more of the first’s hopefulness, even if our own dreams of Camelot remain unrealized.
Camelot book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Music by Frederick Loewe. Directed by Alan Paul Featuring Ken Clark (King Arthur); Alexandra Silber (Guenevere); Nick Fitzer (Lancelot); Floyd King (King Pellinor); Patrick Vaill (Mordred); and Ted can Griethuysen (Merlyn). Choreography by Michele Lunch. Music Director James Cunningham. Scenic Designer Walt Spangler. Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic. Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel. Sound Designer Ken Travis. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.