Lerner and Loewe”™s lively musical Camelot, about the early days of the reign of King Arthur and his creation of the Knights of the Round Table, is currently being staged in an unusual fashion at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Camelot features memorable music by Frederick Loewe and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, who based his re-telling of the King Arthur legend as adapted from T. H. White”™s fictional tetralogy The Once and Future King.
But it is director David Lee”™s minimalist staging that had this critic scratching her head. Opting for a bare-bones staging, the costuming is basic and simplistic (plain shifts, blue jeans or beige pants and puffy shirts) and the sets are virtually non-existent; a simple wooden scaffolding gives the stage its only (vertical) dimensions.
Of course, the tale of King Arthur has gained recent acclaim with comedic renditions such as Monty Python”™s Holy Grail movie (1975) which, in turn, inspired the subsequent spoofy musical and irreverent parody Spamalot (2005). So, Lee and his team appear to be making a nod towards that kind of expectation by making light of their own minimalist and symbolic approach. At the top of the show, when a character announces the setting is castle, he merely holds up an ornately framed painting of a castle. Another character affixes two bare branches to the scaffolding when the audience is told of a large tree, adding the comedic aside, “It”™s winter!”
And so on. This brand of cutesy humor grates when it should delight.
Director David Lee explains his approach:
“In the previous incarnations of Camelot there has always been an emphasis on pageantry, big sets, stunning costumes with lots of armor and ladies in pointy hats, a large chorus of singers and dancers, funny mythical characters and even a dog; much of this to stunning effect. But even though the story has large philosophical resonance, it really is a rather small tale about the relationship among three human beings – Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot,” said Lee.
“A couple of years ago, just for fun, I went through the script and eliminated everything that did not contribute directly to telling their story. What I was left with was the same beautifully written tale, but one that now seemed more direct, clearer and more emotionally accessible. Plus it was shortened enough that I could afford to add back music that is often cut.”
The orchestra is wonderful and the pared-down, eight-person ensemble cast is good. All sing beautifully, with Shannon Warne portraying Guenevere with the right amount of spark and independence. Doug Carpenter is also good as the hulking, serious Knight Lancelot while Shannon Stoeke as the youthful King Arthur conveys a boyish presence caught in the middle of a love triangle. Arthur articulates his reluctance to rule with statements such as, “ill at ease in my crown,” adding that until he saw his Guenevere, “then I was glad to be King.”
Yet Camelot is a musical that has not stood up well to the test of time. Humor such as the “rape joke” at the beginning stands out as being hopelessly dated and off-color. (When Guenevere first encounters her previously unseen groom-to-be in the forest, she is terrified he will molest her. When Arthur assures her he has no intentions of this, she gets all huffy, demanding, “Why not?!”)
This is cringeworthy stuff.
Also, in a departure from the initially “unfulfilled love” of the original staging, a shockingly racy naked tableau of the illicit lovers observed in flagrate delicto concludes Act One — a stripped down Camelot, indeed!
Currently playing at the Pasadena Playhouse
39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena
Runs: until February 7th, 2010
Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m.;
Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.;
and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Tickets are $48.00 – $95.00
Tickets, as well as subscriptions, may be purchased by calling the Pasadena Playhouse at (626) 356-7529 or by visiting the Pasadena Playhouse Box Office, open from 12:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. daily excluding holidays and online.
Group Sales (15 or more) are available by calling (626) 737-2851.
Review by Pauline Adamek