Camelot was, if my problematic memory serves, the first stage musical I ever saw. I know it was the first soundtrack I ever owned, and I wore out the vinyl listening to the heavenly voice of Julie Andrews, the regal sound of Richard Burton, and the sonorous tones of Robert Goulet. The Lerner and Lowe play has gone through many permutations since then (and is going through another right now as it is being Aaron Sorkinized); the ancient story and famous songs remain mostly the same, but the book has been reworked and reworked practically from its 1960 opening, paring its length and revamping its book.
All of which is to say that, as familiar as I am with the tale and the songs, I really didn’t know how it would play out on stage for Music Theatre Works. It turns out that MTW is presenting the latest version of the play, adapted just last year by David Lee. Lee created his version by cutting out all characters and scenes that were not directly related to the central triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot, the virtuous and highly moral Frenchman who “heard the call” of Camelot and came to join its glorious cause only to learn, to his shame and chagrin, that he could be tempted by the flesh after all: by Guinevere. Along with this truncation, he also trimmed verses from some of the songs, the result being that what once was a 3-4 hour musical is now something that, even with an intermission, lasts barely two hours. That is a great length for a show, but the story of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the Knights of the Round Table, replete with flawed characters, moral and political intrigue and conundrums, glorious battles, and complex and confounding magic, is a complicated one: there is a reason that the source material, T.H. White’s 1958 The Once and Future King, clocks in at nearly 900 pages.
The good news is that this version, in which the tale of Arthur is being presented by a group of players and much of what was formerly conveyed through onstage scenes is now spoken as narrative, works, for the most part, very well. Without all of its former subplots, the triangle is actually even more transparent than it once was. Director Brianna Borger’s clear-eyed interpretation of the twin major conflicts of the play—Lance and “Jenny’s” forbidden love and its effect on the “perfection” of Arthur’s dream of Camelot—unequivocally links them as evidence that such perfection will always remain only aspirational, that humans will blow up the dream every time.
The cast, color and gender blind and all possessed of strong and dynamic voices, manages to convey both the quieter, more poignant moments like “I Loved You Once in Silence” and the rowdy group scenes like “The Jousts” and “Fie on Goodness” beautifully. In fact, the three actors playing the Knights—Hannah Mary Simpson, Tommy Thurston, and Sarah Patin—are so striking that we don’t even miss those old large ensembles in the latter scenes. Granted, it helps that they are not playing on a vast proscenium stage, but still…
There is nothing I would consider “bad news” here, but there are a few things that don’t land as well as they might have, and they begin with that central triangle. Christine Mayland Perkins proves right away that she has both the voice and subtle acting ability to portray the young, playful Guinevere, a queen who never actually fits into Arthur’s dream of a peaceful England—she tells us from the start that her idea of wonderful is for two lovers to “start a little war” over her. She manipulates the knights easily, getting three of them to challenge the newly-arrived Lancelot on the same day, reveling in their promises to cut the arrogant, pontificating Frenchman down to size. (“I’ll barbecue him”; “I’ll vivisect him”; etc.) When he proves in the jousts that he is indeed what he claims to be, Perkins’ face is a wonderful blend of shock and respect that quickly morphs to love.
Her two men, though…
I did like both actors. Each has an interesting stage presence and a strong voice. But I kept thinking throughout the play that perhaps their roles should have been reversed.
Nathe Rowbotham is the most accessible, human Lancelot I’ve ever seen. Not possessing Goulet’s deep baritone, they choose to sell the character with sincerity instead of bombast, and sincerity is indeed one of Lancelot’s primary characteristics. But it isn’t enough. Lancelot is supposed to be imposing. He needs to be the powerful, intimidating knight we can believe is capable of the deeds he brags of. And Rowbotham is…nice. It’s difficult to imagine them being fearsome in battle.
Michael Melcalf’s King Arthur does possess those capabilities. He has the booming voice. He has the strong but controlled physical presence. He can be terrifying as an opponent, as we witness in one powerful moment when Arthur, knowing of the infidelity, fleetingly contemplates beheading Lancelot instead of knighting him. He can play bigger-than-life, and that is what Lancelot needs to be. Arthur just needs to be…well…the adult version of the boy who pulled that sword from the stone and was suddenly proclaimed as king: idealistic, wistful, and full of big ideas.
As Arthur and Lance, though, Metcalf and Rowbotham are each missing something. As I said, I liked them both, but I never fully believed either of them, which was maybe just me but it was unfortunate because the one central flaw of this new script is that it does not leave much time for everything to happen. The revelers putting on the play do frequently let us know that time has passed, but huge changes occur far too quickly. Guinevere no sooner sees the good in Lancelot than she is in the middle of a lengthy, passionate—for the 12th Century—affair with him. Parker Guidry’s brilliantly slimy Mordred too easily convinces the knights—who have been champions of virtue for eight years—to retreat into barbarism. (Also, there being only three of them, it seems as if Mordred has managed to turn the entire Table against Arthur.) We just don’t get enough time to adjust to these changes, and it would likely have helped if the men could hold the center as well as Perkins does. Still, it’s a thoughtful, entertaining production.
Lee has given the show a new coda that ties the entire history of the Arthurian legends together, showing how the tales were passed down from generation to generation in many different versions. The story of that “one brief shining moment” that was the dream of Camelot just keeps being told and told. And of course it does: humans may always manage to destroy utopias, but we wouldn’t be humans if we stopped dreaming of them.
Camelot is presented by Music Theatre Works and runs through Nov 13 at The North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie. For tickets and information, please visit Music Theatre Works or, call 847-673-8300. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.