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Chicago by John Olson

The People's Sword in the Stone
Quest Theatre Ensemble

Also see John's review of August: Osage County

Merlin
Vincent Lonergan
One would never call the Quest Theatre Ensemble timid. Their track record of visual invention and creative risk taking continues with this original musical adaptation of the legend of King Arthur's rise to the throne. It's ideal subject matter for their intelligent and family-friendly mix of life-size puppets, music, special effects and classical theatre techniques, but this time they've taken on the additional challenge of developing an original book musical. As so many others have learned, that's an exceptionally fierce dragon to slay. Though the company gives us some magical stage pictures, the writers will have to do battle another day, in another workshop or production, to make this into a more satisfying musical.

There's much exposition, presented not entirely clearly, before we're introduced to the young Arthur we know from other versions of the tale. The opening number, "This Dreadful Life," sets a dark tone through most of the first act, which begins with the birth of Merlin as a deformed creature. After young Merlin is transformed into human appearance, we see the adult Merlin (Vincent Lonergan) facilitate the conception of Arthur. King Uther has requested the magician's assistance in finding a way for the King to sleep with Igraine, the sequestered wife of the the Duke. Merlin gives Uther the appearance of her husband through a nifty effect in which Paul Fagen as Uther is wrapped in a sheet, then, as the sheet is unraveled, the actor playing the Duke is revealed. Appearing to be the Duke, Uther gains entrance into Igraine's bedchamber. Though the conception occurs discreetly behind a sheet, the young kids in the audience seemed a bit perplexed.

After Baby Arthur is taken away from his birth mother Igraine and placed in the care of the rotund knight Sir Ector, it's thankfully time for a little comic relief. This is provided capably by Jason Bowen, who's dressed in a fat suit that doesn't try to believably transform Bowen's body but seems to acknowledge that Sir Ector should be fuller figured.

It isn't until young Arthur (Scott J. Sumerak) appears near the end of the act that the book and lyrics (by director Andrew Park) begin to establish characters with emotions that merit expression through song. Even then, the songs they're given follow formula predictably: "Arthur's Lament" is the sort of "why I am here" ballad that might be found in a Disney musical while "It Must Be Done" and "The Dragon Within" are typical anthems of courage that unfortunately remind us of Spamalot's parodic "Find Your Grail." The music by Scott C. Lamps feels medieval by way of Boublil and Schönberg – these days, not a great way to go. There is, though, a fun comedy number, "The Day of Sir Kay," involving Arthur, Sir Ector and Arthur's egotistical step-brother knight (played with physical skill by Adam Dodds). Bowen and Fagen sing their songs attractively, but Katie Canavan as Igraine has serious pitch problems and the voices overall sound a bit thin. They're accompanied by a three-piece band under the direction of Lamps.

Lonergan's a wonderful Merlin, though. He's wise and magical and a demanding mentor. Lonergan's singing voice doesn't quite match his acting abilities, but his character is the center of the musical and he's so watchable that he holds the show together. It's unfortunate that the script gives him a few cynical lines in the final scene, presaging Arthur's troubles in later life, as it breaks the character.

The stagecraft has some wonderful moments, thanks to puppet design by Nick Rupard and Bowen. Their creations include giant heads for Merlin and for a Greek chorus of three with partially human, partially monstrous features. Proving that simplicity can sometimes be magical as well, a group of cutout horse figures do a dance that is a highlight of Angela Keenan's choreography. The whimsical sets are by Buck Blue and Rupard with scenic art by Rupard and Julie Taylor. Costumes designed by Jessica Pribble and Tiffany B. Sarver are basic, yet effective in helping to establish the world of this legend.

There's a particularly nice line in Park's script which Merlin delivers to young Arthur while teaching him a lesson by removing Arthur's ability to speak. "Mankind learns to speak before he finds his voice," Merlin tells him. Quest has a similar problem with this show, which has stagecraft to spare, but needs some better writing for it to serve.

The People's Sword in the Stone will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at The Blue Theatre, 1609 W. Gregory, Chicago. Tickets are free, but donations are appreciated. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 773-942-2227.


Photo: Jeremy Lawson

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-- John Olson



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