Chicago Theatre Review
For One Brief, Shining Moment
Camelot – Drury Lane Oakbrook
When audiences recall this musical from 1960, the overstuffed, problematic follow-up to Lerner and Loewe’s brilliant, previous Broadway hit, “My Fair Lady,” they remember a fairy tale love story sporting a lush musical score and some vague association with the Kennedy administration. After the show opened, despite mostly mixed reviews, ticket sales skyrocketed following a televised presentation of several musical numbers, performed by cast members Julie Andrews, Richard Burton and Robert Goulet, on the popular Ed Sullivan Show. The musical, beloved largely for its “magical score,” became the top-selling LP for 60 weeks and charmed US audiences during its National Tour. Eventually in 1967 it was filmed, starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave, and multiple regional productions, revivals and concert versions of the show have been produced ever since.
However, the main problem has always been with Alan Jay Lerner’s book. His adaptation of T. H. White’s novel, The Once and Future King, goes from whimsical and happy to heartbreaking and tragic. While the book offered the playwright countless possibilities for a cast of fascinating characters embroiled in a charming, romantic tale all set in a mythical kingdom, the difficulty with the script is that the musical flows from comedy to drama far too abruptly. It opens with a cheerful story, warmly and humorously depicting a young, naive King Arthur meeting and charming Guenevere, his lovely queen-to-be; but the second act becomes pessimistic and dark, spiraling toward a finale filled with sadness, infidelity, and bloodshed. Then in its final moments, after all the tragedy, the show suddenly shifts back to a hopeful message that civilization will indeed, thrive and Arthur’s noble ideals carried on for future generations. However, with little warning, the sudden sadness and violence in Act II never successfully prepared audiences for the musical’s ending.
Much in the way that the Lerner estate worked with Rachel Rockwell, sanctioning and encouraging her recent update of “Brigadoon,” New York director Alan Souza has re-imagined another Lerner and Loewe classic. The musical, while still featuring the same delightful characters and songs, and flavored with lightness and humor during the early scenes, presents the story’s darkness from the very beginning and builds nicely to its logical conclusion. It’s in that last few moments, however, where the musical still seems contrived and has to work too hard for a requisite happy ending.
Arthur, especially as played by talented New York actor Ken Clark, is a very human young man, who just happens to also be the King. His twitchy, impulsive movements add to his halting rendition of “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight” and his charmingly seductively “Camelot,” which feel real and heartfelt. Like many of this production’s musical numbers, these songs feel more like soliloquies, monologues and dialogues that are set to music. By the time Mr. Clark muses about “How to Handle a Woman,” he’s aged a bit and his movements and delivery have sophisicated and mellowed. The audience understands that this is a young monarch who, like most people, is insecure about the recipe necessary for maintaining a successful relationship. By the end of Act I, when Souza freezes time during Lancelot’s knighting ceremony, Arthur delivers his Excalibur speech with the necessary maturity and passion that raises the audience’s expectations for the conflict and conclusion found later.
Lovely Christy Altomare, while perhaps not everyone’s ideal Guenevere, feels appropriate to Souza’s vision. Unlike Julie Andrews‘ ladylike young queen, Ms. Altomare plays Guenevere with gusto and a seething passion, creating a spunky young woman with an insatiable lust for life. Guenevere makes her first impression with “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” sung in the original production as a simple, witty, tongue-in-cheek longing for adventure. In Souza’s production, Ms. Altomare portrays a feisty, hot-blooded adolescent already blossoming into a young woman. By the time we see her rolling around in bed with Arthur, as he humorously devises the idea of the Round Table, and later romping through the glen with sexual abandon during “The Lusty Month of May,” we realize this is a strong woman with a voluptuous sexual appetite. Understandably, playgoers won’t be as shocked by her carnal attraction to the ruggedly handsome Lancelot. Attempting to assuage the tension and turmoil festering within their relationship, Clark and Altomare team up for one of the show’s musical highlights, the witty “What Do the Simple Folks Do?” In this number, audiences witness Arthur’s final attempt to handle his woman and rekindle the connection they once shared.
Travis Taylor, the thrillingly talented Chicago actor/singer, who recently impressed as Enjolras in “Les Miserables” and the Monster in “Young Frankenstein,” creates a Lancelot who, despite his devotion to achieve personal perfection, is really just a vulnerable young man with needs. Mr. Taylor fulfills every theatergoer’s musical expectations with his glorious “If Ever I Would Leave You,” while mining Lerner’s lyrics for every drop of humor in his monologue of modesty, “C’est Moi.”
As both Merlyn, Arthur’s teacher and advisor, and King Pellinore, an old friend of Arthur’s who’s spent recent years wandering the woods with his hilarious dog Horrid, searching for “the beast,” Chicago character actor Jonathan Weir brings humor and homely wisdom to this production. Souza has staged and choreographed his production (assisted by Philip Lacey), and his “Follow Me,” which features Merlyn’s enchantment by a frighteningly-played Nimue (Keewa Nurullah), displays show-stopping flair and spectacle. Patrick Rooney, so impressive in the Marriott’s “Godspell” and BoHo’s “Floyd Collins,” creates a properly bratty and menacing Mordred. With villainous flair an authority Mr. Rooney delivers his songs, “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and the venomous, “Fie on Goodness” (which, along with “Take Me to the Fair,” was cut from the original 1960 production and has been reinstated here, somewhat abbreviated). The talented ensemble, a little younger than usually found in this musical, are all capable actor/singer/dancers and bring the youthful exuberance so necessary for the re-imagining of this story.
The real stars of this production, however, are the stunning visuals created by the production’s team of artists. Kevin Depinet’s extraordinary set designs, dominated by an enormous tree, sometimes lit by candles, changes with each season. For certain scenes, select pieces rise from beneath the stage and are striking and imaginative. There are no fairy tale costumes in this production. Maggie Hofmann’s beautiful early medieval costumes (along with Rick Jarvie’s authentic wigs and makeups) more closely reflect the 5th and early 6th centuries, during which King Arthur was thought to rule. Lee Fiskness‘ lighting design not only illuminates the stage where and whenever needed, but provides the necessary color and moody, mysterious shadowing for each scene.
In addition to these technical achievements, John Tovar’s finely executed and detailed fight choreography provides additional power and excitement to this production. Not the least of which is a spectacular, realistically played-out battlefield scene, during which Souza has smartly elected to show Lancelot’s army at war with Arthur’s men, rather than simply telling about it in song. The effect is further enhanced by Fiskness‘ terrific lighting when, as the lyrics say, “the sky turned to red”. The overall power of this “one, brief shining moment” is reason enough to pay a visit to this “Camelot.” It is simply an exceptional, re-imagined, breathtaking production that fans of this musical should not miss.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 6-January 4 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the Drury Lane box office at 630-530-0111, TicketMaster at 800-745-3000 or by going to www.drurylane.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.