According to a program note by director David Lee, this production had its genesis in his attempt, "just for fun," to go through the script and cut out everything that didn't directly contribute to telling the story of Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot. (Merlyn, Nimue, and Morgan Le Fey, among others, hit the road.) The result is a tight show that clocks in at under two and a half hours and still has time for "Then You May Take Me to the Fair" and "Fie on Goodness!."
But what really makes this version work, unlike most recent productions, is that its three leads are cast with people young enough that you can believe they are impetuous twenty-somethings. Research does not disclose actor Shannon Stoeke's age, but he seems much better suited to young Arthur than Michael York at La Mirada in 2007, and Jeremy Irons at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005. The result is an Arthur who is completely plausible being scared at his wedding night in "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?" and equally believable as he desperately tries to remember Merlyn's advice on "How to Handle a Woman." Then, as Arthur ages through the play, Stoeke shows us how he has grown into the role of kingand the toll the obligations of leadership take on a man who takes the job seriously. Stoeke also sings a hell of a lot better than York and Irons. If it does nothing else, Lee's production reminds us how good Camelot can be when Arthur is played by someone who can actually handle the role, rather than being "stunt cast" with a big name actor.
Shannon Warne's Guenevere starts out resigned to her fate of marrying a man she doesn't know, but still has a charming little spark when she thinks about what might have been in "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood." "Don't stare," she chides Arthur, then flirtatiously tosses her hair before adding, "It's rude." She's playful and, like Stoeke's Arthur, youngwhich makes their instant attraction understandable. It also explains how, without the solid foundations of a more adult marriage, her eye eventually wanders to the self-described perfect specimen of manhood, Lancelot, played by Doug Carpenter (recently of Life Could Be a Dream). Boyishly handsome and possessed of a lovely singing voice, Carpenter smoothly pulls off the conceited Frenchman who somehow simultaneously only wants to serve. (Points, too, for singing "C'est Moi" with a vaguely French accentalthough the accent nearly disappears completely soon after.)
Put it all together and you've got a love triangle that crackles with chemistryand an Arthur who is passionate not only about Guenevere, but also his quest to be a good king and bring an end to war. Arthur's downfall is completely understandable here, as he sees the world in black and white termsvengeance or pacifism, king or human being, rule of law or rule of heartwithout the shades of grey that wisdom often brings.
So, yes, Lee's Camelot is something you rarely see in theatres these daysa production that is exactly what it claims to be in the Director's Note. In this case, that means a production which retains the beautiful Lerner & Loewe score but which, by cutting everything extraneous to the story of the three people at its center, sharpens the focus. In fact, by paring everything else down, it enables the central story to take its time and become more complex.
With only eight in the cast, you need a lot of energy and creative staging to power through ensemble numbers, and Lee delivers here as well. (It helps that Warne is the only woman in the play; you can get a lot of vocal strength out of seven men.) Lee creates an eight-people-getting-together-to-tell-the-story-of-Arthur vibe, where costumes and set pieces are merely suggested, and chuckles are earned when someone holds a branch over someone else's head, as the script calls for the latter to be beneath a tree. And there's no skimping on the orchestrathirteen members keep the score sounding nice and full.
There are a few directorial missteps. The ending to the otherwise adorable "C'est Moi" is staged a bit too corny for this production; there should be a larger break between "The Seven Deadly Virtues" and "Fie on Goodness!" (which, right now, play almost like a Medley of Evil); and some of the lyrics get lost in "Guenevere," which is a shame as, for those unfamiliar with the show, it's critical plot-wise. But, basically, this is a fun and vibrant production of a musical which, in recent productions, has been anything but.
Camelot runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through February 7, 2010. For information and tickets, see www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Pasadena Playhouse -- Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Stephen Eich, Executive Director -- presents Camelot. Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; Music by Frederick Loewe. Original production directed and staged by Moss Hart; based on "The Once and Future King" by T.H. White. Scenic Design Tom Buderwitz; Costume Design Maggie Morgan; Lighting Design Michael Gilliam, Sound Design Vikram Kirby; Press Representative Patty Onagan; Casting Michael Donovan, CSA; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Stage Manager Lea Chazin; Music Director/Orchestrations/Additional Arrangements Christy Crowl; Musical Staging by Mark Esposito; Directed by David Lee.