By Ruth Ross
When Two River Theater Company listed Camelot in their offerings for the 2014-2015 season, I was perplexed. How could a small regional theater on what, I assume, is a somewhat limited budget produce such a beloved, blockbuster musical?
Well, I should not have worried. By thinking out of the box, the creative team at Two River has given us a play that is less spectacle and more human. Eschewing the elaborate scenery and costumes of most other productions (e.g., Broadway, the Paper Mill Playhouse), director David Lee and his crackerjack production team provide this classic romantic triangle with more nuance than we usually associate with it. It's all about the people, folks.
Written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in 1960 and adapted from T.H. White's novel The Once and Future King (also the source for The Sword in the Stone cartoon film), Camelot starred a trio of heavy hitters: Julie Andrews as Guenevere, Richard Burton as King Arthur and Robert Goulet as Lancelot; Roddy McDowell played the villain Mordred, a smaller albeit pivotal role. Lush music and clever lyrics told the tale of star-crossed lovers, caught in a web of friendship, politics and passion. The production was a feast for eyes and ears. (Left: Britney Coleman as Guenevere and Oliver Thornton as Arthur)
In Red Bank, Lee and his team have pared down the scenery to a series of platforms, stairs, ladders, metal beams and a catwalk high above the stage, along with some ragged draperies and movable props to recreate a medieval court. As the play begins, the eight actors—all of them young, vital and handsome—stroll onstage casually dressed in contemporary duds. To signify their royal characters, designer Tilly Grimes has them don simple vests, jackets, crowns and garlands, boots and, for Guinevere, a skirt, as the action begins. Sound effects and announcements of various locations make sure we never lose our way as this iconic tale wends its way to its terrible end.
The legend of King Arthur has a long history. The real Arthur was probably a fifth century Romanized Celtic chieftain who attempted to stem the tide of the Saxon invasion from the east. Stories about him floated about for years, but it took a 12th century Welsh monk, Geoffrey of Monmouth, to turn him into a king. In the 15th century, Sir Thomas Malory gathered the legends into Le Mort d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur) and gave us the Arthur–Guenevere–Lancelot plot, a juicy story subsequently picked up by the poet Tennyson in Idylls of the King and popularized in the 20th century by the Mary Stewart Arthur trilogy and T.H. White’s novel. It is the latter that gives the musical its core impetus: the idea that might does not make right, that a civilized society does not condone violence (especially against the defenseless) and that disputes can be settled by law in courts before a jury, rather than by battles royal. (Above, the Company performs “The Jousts.”)
The actors chosen to tell this story may not be household names yet, but there is a bright future for this talented bunch. As Arthur, Oliver Thornton (left, knighting Nicholas Rodriguez as Lancelot) is mix of uncertainty and resolve—the former from his becoming king in an unusual way (he pulled a sword from a stone), the latter from the eternal optimism of the young. His excitement as he talks about his plans is palpable, which makes the final scene before his ultimate battle with Mordred even more poignant. Too, he has a beautiful voice and a playful manner, as showcased in "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight" and his vivid explanation of what simple folk do when they're blue. Britney Coleman is a fetching Guenevere, a strong young woman who nevertheless longs to have men fight for her honor in the traditional way! She's equally at home with comic numbers ("The Lusty Month of May/Then You May Take Me to the Fair") as she is with ballads projecting her longing for Lancelot. Ah, Lancelot! Nicholas Rodriguez (a Channing Tatum look-alike) is magnificent in the role of the arrogant French knight who crosses the Channel to join the Round Table. His swagger is that of a young narcissist without the oiliness of Goulet. And his rendition of "If Ever I Would Leave You" brings tears to the eyes. Best of all, real chemistry, physical and psychological, is exhibited by this trio. We feel their longing, love and pain very keenly, unobscured by pomp and ceremony.
Superb support is provided by Ryan G. Dunkin (Sir Sagramore), Kent Overshown (Sir Dinadan), Perry Sook (Sir Lionel) and Parker Slaybaugh (Tom). Talented Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is a malevolent, scheming Mordred, a real contrast to Arthur's new world order; he has great fun decrying "The Seven Deadly Virtues" and proclaiming with the other knights "Fie on Goodness" as they bring Camelot to an end. [Above: Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Mordred), second from right, surrounded by Perry Sook (Sir Lionel), Ryan G. Dunkin (Sir Sagramore), and Kent Overshown (Sir Dinadan) decry goodness.]
Steve Orich and his eight musicians play the familiar melodies without overpowering the singers. Kudos to Michael Gilliam (lighting design), Acme Sound Partners (sound design) and J. Steven White (fight direction). Once again, David Lee shows his versatility as a director; his last gig was helming Can-Can at the Paper Mill Playhouse. He certainly is a director to watch.
Camelot has always been one of my favorite musicals. It hearkens back to the heyday of the form, with musical numbers that grow organically from the action, move it along and enhance it; nimble choreography by Mark Esposito; and a book that actually tells a story, instead of being a pastiche of pop or rap songs. As the archetypal love triangle, the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot tale never gets old. Here, in its latest charming and most intriguing incarnation, the Two River Theater Company has given us a Camelot for our own time—just in time for the holidays. It is a terrific gift, one you will want to share with your relatives and friends, one that will stay with you long after you have left the theater.
Camelot will be performed at the Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, through December 15. An extra performance has been added on Sunday, December 7, at 7:30 PM. Tickets are available from the box office 732.345.1400 or www.tworivertheater.org online. Call for performance times and information. Parking is free in the theater's spacious lot.