Theater League’s New Production: “Camelot” or “Camelittle”?

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

In Theater League’s new traveling production of Camelot, the venerable musical is described as “the story as you’ve never seen it before.” Given Theater League’s penchant of late for streamlining and even cheapening its productions, this bold statement sent shivers up my spine as I had visions of Sir Lancelot dueling with a Star Warsian light saber and King Arthur concluding declarations with “make it so.” Fortunately, Phoenix Entertainment, the producers of this recent retooling revival, didn’t go that far, but did make some changes that diluted the majesty of this classic musical.

In an interview, Camelot director and Phoenix co-founder Michael McFadden went out of his way to say that Camelot needed to get back to the basics of the novel it was based on, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. “We’ve really kind of keyed into the kind of chamber musical aspect of this piece,” McFadden said in a recent interview. “We viewed Camelot more as a play than as a musical, to kind of get back to the root of it. And we wanted to approach the more realistic elements of this production, and kind of were inspired by shows like Game of Thrones, for example, and get back to the grittiness of the piece and to really figure out a way to heighten the love triangle as we explored it.”

As an answer to HBO’s sprawling, effects-heavy Game of Thrones, McFadden decided to streamline the theatrical version, cutting several key songs and about 20-30 minutes of stage action that did not deal directly with the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot love triangle. In our view, they got rid of too much of what makes Camelot one of the more magical musicals of all time. 

Although the basic score remains, two key songs sung by Guenevere have been deleted: the whimsical “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” (which actually was cut from the original show, but restored for the 1967 motion picture version) and the gorgeous confessional “I Loved You Once in Silence,” in which Guenevere declares her true feelings to Lancelot, just before being apprehended by Mordred in Act II. In addition, nearly all of the pageantry and visual flair of the show, including the parade that opens Act II, were also jettisoned.  In viewing Camelot as a play instead of a musical, McFadden has devalued one of the most glorious scores in all of Broadway. It is Lerner and Loewe’s memorable songs that have made Camelot a treasure of Broadway, not the story, and it is a crime to take even one song out of this production. 

Thankfully, an exemplary cast manages to save McFadden’s musical emasculation from being a total disaster. In fact, Adam Grabau’s sterling performance as King Arthur is one of the finest we’ve ever seen. Grabau plays the part with a younger exuberance than we are familiar with; it’s kind of a combination of the upper crust whimsy of Kelsey Grammer with the wry stentorian tones of Orson Welles. He is so likable as the king that we grieve for him when he is forced to make the decision to banish his wife and his most loyal friend from the kingdom. The chamber of commerce weather report, “Camelot,” is still the most moving musical sequence in the show, perfectly emulating Richard Burton’s indelible performance.

Tim Rogan plays Lancelot as Buzz Lightyear, a preening, egocentric, Narcissistic warrior who is asked by an astonished Guenevere, “Have you come to grips with humility?” Rogan’s singing voice on Lancelot’s signature number, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” won’t make anyone forget Robert Goulet, but it is effective as well as passionately delivered.

As Guenevere, Mary McNulty adds a brassy coloratura to excellent instincts as a comedienne in the lighter moments during Act I. It’s too bad she doesn’t get to sing “Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” for that would have surely been a musical highlight for her. As it is, she does a remarkably poignant job on the achingly beautiful “Before I Gaze at You Again,” which was, thankfully, not cut from this production. 

Kasidy Devlin plays Arthur’s evil bastard child Mordred with malevolent glee. Devlin (who could have been cast just because of his name) is deliciously rancid in the role, a snippy, sarcastic runt who clearly revels in his own dastardliness. Mark Poppleton is wonderful in the dual roles of Merlyn and the crusty King Pellinore. 

Kevin Depinet’s spare scenic design is dominated by a bizarre metallic structure that looks like wilting stalks of silver celery that passes for the tree that Arthur hides in at the outset of the play. The rest of the set is stripped down, as in most of Theater League’s recent traveling productions, with narrow, movable flats replacing stage-length drops and background sets. Much of the atmosphere of the show is executed through Mike Baldassari’s dramatic lighting, with multiple cone-shaped spotlights illuminating small sections of the stage. One stunning design, seen during the “Lusty Month of May” sequence, features a grove of giant rose blossoms suspended from the ceiling. 

I didn’t think it would be possible for Lerner & Loewe’s sumptuous songs to be effective with only five instruments, but musical director Marshall Keating has done just that, creating a Renaissance sound by including a lute (played by Alexander Domschot) and a cadre of recorders and flutes (played by Michel Gohler), which make Loewe’s melodies such as “C’est Moi,” sound like they were written during the late Middle Ages. To enhance the foreboding tragedy of the story, a menacing, low frequency drone prefaces both acts (even before the curtain went up) and the initial entrance of Mordred. Over-amplified pounding drums accent the dramatic climaxes of the show, enough to satisfy even the most strident Game of Thrones fan.

Resolved: Although the drastic changes in McFadden’s approach to Camelot threaten to decimate Lerner and Loewe’s musical kingdom, the effective production and a fantastic cast save the day.

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Camelot plays tonight at 8 pm and Sunday at 7:30 pm at the Fred Kavli Theater. For tickets, visit http://theaterleague.com/thousandoaks/camelot/ 

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