Camelot: Pasadena Playhouse, 1/24/10

25 01 2010

During my freshman year at Duke, I took a writing seminar entitled “Images of Arthur”; in one of my first academic papers on musical theater, I explored musical renderings of Arthurian legend from A Connecticut Yankee (Rodgers and Hart, 1927) to Camelot (Lerner and Loewe, 1960).  Until this past weekend, though, I had never seen Camelot on stage, and I was excited to see one of the first shows that I had “seriously” studied in a live performance.

In the program’s introductory note, director David Lee notes that Camelot has always been plagued with “book problems.”  Despite a score of popular hits, the sprawling storyline has been endlessly worked and reworked over the years; Lee has now pared down the book to focus on the central love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.  While the story is undoubtedly tighter, this 8-actor minimalist production does not peel away the layers to reveal any new depth or nuance to the musical.  Instead, the minimalism sadly lays bare a still-rickety text.

Part of a musical’s excitement is its dynamic shifts from dialogue to music, from solo to ensemble performance.  With only 8 actors, I missed these vital changes in energy. Camelot needs the exuberance of a chorus, the joyous “lift” of a singing and dancing ensemble invading the stage for the opening parade march and “The Lusty Month of May.” Yes, Camelot comes to a tragic end.  But in the two hours leading up to this end, the audience must be convinced that this city truly is the “most congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering,” as King Arthur claims.  In Lee’s production, there is never a community to support this assertion through exuberant ensemble song and dance.

Without enough dynamic shifts, the musical feels rather staid, steady, and serious. This overriding seriousness is not a flaw in Lee’s production only, but one of the inherent “book problems” that should be reconsidered – yet again.  I watched the 1967 film this afternoon for comparison; while I felt the ensemble added a bit more life to Camelot before its downfall, I was still disappointed by the gravity that the book establishes from the outset. Lerner’s “propositions” and monologues for Arthur are beautifully crafted, but perhaps too much, too soon – and in striking opposition to the Loewe’s buoyant songs.  As an audience member, I want to get caught up in the giddy whirl of Arthur and Guinevere’s romance, as well as the communal hopefulness of Arthur’s new order of chivalry, before the story becomes too heavy.

Fortunately, a production consists of more than merely text.  The redeeming quality of Pasadena Playhouse’s Camelot is the performances, as each of the 8 actors is exceptional.  I was especially taken by Doug Carpenter’s Lancelot, with a deep romantic baritone voice and vastly improved acting skills since I saw him as Billy Bigelow in a semi-staged performance of Carousel last spring.  Shannon Stoeke is playful and enchanting as Arthur; his giddy, boyish smile lights up the role.  And despite decreased forces, a few production numbers draw near to the musical exuberance I imagine a larger ensemble would create – especially the numbers featuring the comical “3 manly knights.”  The jousting scene provides a particularly delightful dynamic shift in the production; here, minimalism of set and props is also used to great comedic effect, providing a necessary respite from the heaviness of the book.

Despite outstanding performances, the Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Camelot held very little more than historic interest for me.  The musical felt both rickety and a bit antiquated – which is why the sudden burst of Spring Awakening nudity surprised everyone in the audience on Saturday afternoon.  Most of the audience consisted of older patrons who were certainly not expecting the 21st century to intrude on this Lerner and Loewe classic, for which they have a deep nostalgic appreciation.

Nostalgia is certainly the keyword here.  There are many potential reasons to revive a show – artistic director Sheldon Epps even suggests a connection between the hopefulness of King Arthur’s reign and Obama’s administration – but nostalgia is a prime reason for bringing back Camelot.  I overheard several conversations about the original production and film scattered throughout the audience.  And of course, nostalgia is built into the show itself:

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.

Yet nostalgia is – by definition – a desire for a past that is unattainable, and perhaps never even existed.  I wonder if Camelot was as enchanting as these older audience members had remembered.




One response

25 01 2010

Go Sarah! Fascinating to learn about the “book problems” and chronic reworking. Appreciate your thoroughness in rewatching the film: it’s been ages since I saw it, and all I really recall is how pretty Vanessa Redgrave was and her chemistry with Franco Nero. Good point about nostalgia: Jackie Kennedy made that very explicit after her husband’s assassination when she linked the show to his administration.

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