A Camelot almost fit for a king

Nov. 28, 2003, midnight | By Josh Gottlieb-Miller | 20 years, 6 months ago

You wouldn't expect King Arthur to be so human, but the genius of a truly mortal Arthur slowly dawns on you as Camelot progresses. Arthur is the kind of man who pulled Excalibur from its stone by accident, the kind of man who stumbles upon the idea of the Knights of the Round Table and exclaims that he's had a real thought! (Merlyn used to do all the thinking for him.) This thoroughly decent and humble man is the sympathetic backbone to not only the mythical Camelot, but also its admirable staging by Arena Stage.

Camelot is, of course, the sometimes tragic and sometimes triumphant tale of Arthur and the Round Table. Over a period of several years you see Arthur (Steven Skybell) and Lady Guenevere (Kate Suber) marry, the Round Table flourish, Lancelot (Matt Bogart) become its greatest knight, and the Round Table fall.

The problem with such an expansive undertaking is balance. Camelot begins slowly, establishing the human Arthur (Skybell giving an excellently subtle, expressive performance) meeting the pretty and rebellious Guenevere and founding the Round Table. Though there are a few funny jokes and some burgeoning drama, director Molly Smith's otherwise fine direction suffers as Camelot coasts along and the Round Table grows.

Camelot's shaky start is due largely to Alan Jay Lerner's mediocre book and Frederick Loewe's light compositions, though, and there really is something disappointing about Camelot that's inherent to any talented group tackling lesser material. Think of Arena Stage's Camelot as the Beatles covering the Monkees. They'll rock the hell out of the material, but even Arena's veteran cast and emotional direction can't elevate Lerner's script into a great production.

Camelot is also hurt by apparently viewing itself as mere vehicle for a few lyrically clever songs that lack any melodic punch. Smith doesn't meld the comedy, drama and music into a solid, cohesive production until act two, and this seriously sabotages an otherwise quality musical. Fortunately, the cast does a fairly quality job keeping the play together. All have good timing and quality voices: Arthur's is powerful, even if he lacks range, and Guenevere's is consistently expressive. One of Arthur's songs, "How to handle a woman," even features the beautiful and telling lyric, "The way to handle a woman is to love her." (Arthur and Guenevere's relationship embodies this lyric, having reached the point where they are beyond passion but not beyond love.) There are a few other keepers though, particularly Arthur's villainous and illegitimate half-son Mordred (Jack Ferver) singing "The Seven Deadly Virtues" and "Fie on Goodness" and Lancelot's irresistibly arrogant "C'est Moi."

Speaking of Lancelot, he deserves special praise for his entrance being the turning point where Camelot becomes a quality play. Lancelot's wonderfully ridiculous presence is the spark that ignites the previously uninteresting show: a dashing knight, never beaten in battle and thoroughly assured of himself. Lancelot at one point suggests there should be a standard for the Knights of the Round Table to meet, so Arthur asks whose abilities would be the standard. "Not myself, it would not be fair," Lancelot naively remarks, and the Court's (as well as Guenevere's) initial disdain for him provides the necessary conflict for the show to move along. It is only when Lancelot performs a pivotal miracle later, saving the life of a man who he struck in jousting, that he wins over the Court (as well as Guenevere).

Mordred is another important player, and after Ferver's strutting entrance you know his performance will be wicked good fun. Lancelot and Ferver prove to be the driving force behind Camelot, but their work would be nothing without Skybell's subtle Arthur, whose magnificently human presence remains the show's most meaningful point. It is Arthur's line, having been betrayed, that dramatically marks Camelot's dark turn. "I demand a man's vengeance. But I am a king," the noble monarch remarks.

Among its other strengths, Camelot does have a worthy stage design (Kate Edmunds), very functional and versatile as locations change. Paul Tazewell's costume design is also exceptional, perfectly featuring exotic Knights from around the world. Baayork Lee's choreography is decent and Smith's pacing is surprisingly smooth, given Camelot's length.

Earnest and almost great, Camelot is showing at Arena Stage through January 4, 2004. Tickets are upwards of $42. However, people aged 5 through 25 can buy a limited number of $10 tickets until 5:25 the day of the performance.

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