Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Camelot is the name of the mythical British kingdom that legendary King Arthur attempted to transform into a social and political utopia. The Arthurian folktales are believed to date from the ninth century, but Alan Jay Lerner choose to base the book of Camelot on T. H. White's mid-20th century multi-volume adaptation, "The Once and Future King." It seems a stroke of show business genius on Lerner's part to take England's core nationalist myth, one that defends imperialism and monarchy, and transform it into an all-American narrative about a man of the people who shoots up to the top and is inspired to give birth to democracy.
The play, however, focuses mostly on the love triangle between the King, Queen Guenevere, and the French knight Sir Lancelot. Lerner's narrative lightens White's pessimistic conclusion that any idealistic struggle would ultimately be thwarted by human nature. The hazards of human nature are presented, but there is a slightly more upbeat ending: While Camelot is riven and destroyed, its existence will be remembered. Future generations of idealists can look back and draw inspiration from a Camelot that was, for "one brief shining moment," fair and just and glorious. It's a welcome and relevant theme.
Lerner sets his play some years after Arthur extracted Excalibur from the proverbial stone. When we meet him, he's nervously awaiting the arrival of his future wife, Princess Guenevere, who is being shipped in from a neighboring kingdom in hopes that an alliance marriage can be formed. Arthur has never seen her and he's terrified; he hides himself in a tree as the young princess storms into the forest railing that she's too young to be married and ought to be given a chance to experience "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood." (These simple joys amount to being put "on a pedestal,/ Worshipped and competed for", and watching her rival suitors spill each other's blood.) A mesmerized Arthur falls out of his tree and, hiding his identity, proceeds to persuade Guenevere that Camelot is an ideal "spot for happy ever aftering"; also, it has fabulous weather ("It never rains until after sundown"). When Arthur's entourage arrives and his cover is blown, Guenevere signals her assent by softly repeating the song's refrain. It is one of the play's loveliest moments.
Skip to five years later. The pair is still happy (or, to quote the musical theater scholar, Stacy Wolf: "They get along fine: she knits, and he begins to articulate a new political vision of peace and democracy"). Guenevere enthuses as Arthur bounces his ideas off her. The greatest idea involves inviting the best knights from all around the world (i.e., Western Europe) to travel to Camelot and join a Round Table. The fraternity will devote themselves to the principles of a new chivalry: "Might for right!" replacing the old "Might for Might" (Lerner paints Arthur's innovations in rather broad strokes). French Lancelot gets wind of the invite and arrives in Camelot to devote himself to king and kingdom. He falls in love with Guenevere; after a while, she falls for him; and the rest is folklore.
Director Michael Brindisi seems to have chosen to leave the original show unaltered (except for the omission of the unlovable "Fie on Goodness"). Given that choice, this production is as fine as anyone could hope for. Musical director Andrew Cooke does perfect justice to Frederick Loewe's lush and majestic score, and Tamara Kangas Erickson's imaginative, athletic choreography contributes to the fanciful atmosphere. The lulling water nymph ballet in act one, performed by an ethereal Renee Guittar, is breathtaking. How gratifying to see musical theater that draws upon the Twin Cities' rich pool of gifted, well-trained dancers.
Brindisi's casting choices lend a sense of inevitability to the love triangle, enabling us to sympathize with all three characters. Because Keith Rice as Arthur is significantly older than Helen Anker's Guenevere and Aleks Knezevich's Lancelot, we understand why the two young people would be drawn to one another. While Guenevere and Arthur's affection for one another is strong and genuine, it's clear that the marriage has never been a passionate one (after five years, the royal pair have no children). One of the subtler themes that this production draws out is that there are different kinds of love, and one is no less real than another.
Anker and Rice work beautifully off one another to portray the growing awkwardness of their relationship, and the torture of having to hide their thoughts and feelings from one another. Both performances are deeply felt and richly imagined. As Lancelot, Knezevich takes a part which could easily come off as cartoonish and plays it with so much conviction that he seems utterly believable. Knezevich is a richly talented and extremely likeable performer, and his aching, full-throated "If Ever I Would Leave You" is a showstopper.
As stellar as all three actors are, however, they are helpless to save a play that is badly outdated. I'm accustomed to cutting some slack to musicals from the Golden Age of Broadway, but there are moments in this show that are go well beyond cringe-worthy. Take, for example, the supposedly humorous exchange that occurs in the aforementioned opening scene when Arthur falls down from the tree where had had been watching Guenevere. Guenevere is startled at the sudden appearance of this strange leather-clad man, and sounds appropriately afraid as she asks if he is going to "twist [her] arm and tie [her] to a tree" or "sling [her] over [his] shoulder and carry [her] off"? But when Arthur reassures her that he has no intention of doing either, she pouts and asks petulantly, "How dare you insult me in this fashion? Do my looks repel you?" Ha ha. Get it? She's so vain that she's disappointed that he's not going to abduct her or tie her up and ravish her. Bits like this are not funny anymore. And because they are so out of step with this-century perspective, they jolt us right out of the narrative. Part of the problem is that so much of the play's humor derives from juxtaposing (mediaeval) past with present. That's fine in principle, but when the "present" being fobbed off is early to mid-"Mad Men," the jokes fall flat. The play needs a rewrite.
Short of an extensive overhaul, I wonder if there couldn't be some small adjustments that could help audiences move past the material that is far beyond its sell-by date. The preferred performance style in the show is earnestness. It works fine, but wouldn't it put the audience more at ease if the actors were allowed to insert an ironic inflection, an Al Franken lookor even a blinkwhen the unintentionally anachronistic ugly stuff surfaces? Even tweaking a line or two would go a long way toward making the play more 21st-century-audience-friendly. Take the bit described above. It seems so fixable. Instead of saying, "How dare you insult me [by not abducting/ravishing me]," couldn't Guenevere say something like, "Good. I won't tie you to a tree either." I disagree with critics (of the book, not the Chanhassen Camelot) who feel that the play is beyond repair and needs to be shelved. There's so much here that's rich and beautiful and that still seem relevant. It's just that sometimes to save the baby you have to throw out some of the bathwater.
Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is being performed through February 25, 2017, at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, 501 West 78th Street, Chanhassen, MN 55317. To order tickets or for further information, visit www.chanhassentheatres.com or call the box office at 952-934-1525 or toll free at 800-362-3515.
Directed by Michael Brindisi