“Camelot does not live in a certain time or place; it is a legend,” according to Shane Fernando, who is directing the timeless classic on the Thalian Hall stage for Opera House Theatre Company. The show opens Wednesday night, and proves its timing rather perfect in a world wrought with political turmoil and injustices practically every nanosecond.
The musical is adapted from T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” and is based on King Arthur’s legend, from marrying his love-at-first-sight, Guinevere, to founding the Knights of the Round Table and ruling Camelot, to watching the fall of his empire. In the height of its popularity in the ‘60s, US President John F. Kennedy was known for playing the famed soundtrack nightly, and especially was taken by the line, “Don’t let it be forgot / that once there was a spot / for one brief, shining moment / that was known as Camelot.”
“It rose on the American scene during an era of great disillusionment at the assassination of the president,” Fernando tells. “We still live in a fast-changing, unstable world. It must not be forgotten how fragile freedom is and how justice can be, at times, hard to find.”
And so “Camelot” tackles such themes of a nation ruled by honor and justice, using their “might for right,” instead of fighting for greed and power. King Arthur founds the Knights of the Round Table (a good metaphor to today’s world leaders), and among them sweeps in a knight unlike another, Lancelot (Christopher Rickert). Lancelot falls for the queen, and vice-versa, leading the story away from hope and honor and into betrayal and disloyalty, with the destruction of lives and even a nation coming to fruition.
“Romance and love are never easy,” Fernando puts it lightly. “It takes work and nurturing to thrive, and is worth fighting to protect. . . . [‘Camelot’] is a tragedy, and on the surface it appears that love doesn’t survive, but in fact love does win in the long haul. . . . The people lose the battle within their own time, but the concept is passed onto the next generation, with the prayer that they will be successful.”
The story begins with King Arthur (Sam Robison) meeting Guinevere (Heather Setzler) in a magical forest. Unbeknownst to the soon-to-be-queen, their arranged marriage would actually lead to love. They fall head over heels within minutes of meeting. “The first scene when Guinevere and Arthur meet [is] so innocent and dear,” Setzler describes, “and shows the promise of what could be.”
Setzler calls Guinevere the people’s queen—much like Di was the people’s princess before her untimely death. “Like Diana, Guinevere is friendly and festive with people and well liked,” she explains. “As in Diana and Charles’ relationship, there is infidelity between Guinevere and Arthur. Of course in modern times, Chuck and Di just divorced—as opposed to sentencing someone to burn at the stake!”
When the show progresses, we see King Arthur construct his army of knights, including a young, dashing, bombastic Frenchman, Lancelot. The same electricity of connection reignites within Guinevere upon meeting Lancelot. Only she thinks, at first, it’s a distaste for the knight’s pomposity. After a jousting battle that produces a bit of a miracle, she realizes it’s love.
“I mean, I know he brought someone back to life, and that’s pretty sexy, but immediately in love?” Setzler quips. “I try to find times in the scenes prior to walk that love-hate line with [Christopher]. A ‘he’s so annoying but there’s something about him’ vibe, so that it seems more believable when they finally connect.”
It’s Rickert’s first time playing the lead knight of all knights. While the show vocally challenges his baritone more than his tenor, it’s also teaching him about the meshing of arrogance with humility and sincerity. A self-righteous and confident man, Rickert’s Lancelot must show his condescension isn’t malicious—only in service to his king, whose wife he happens to also love.
“My favorite scene is in Act 2, and it just shows the longing and sadness in Lancelot and Guinevere,” Rickert tells. “It expresses the true tragedy of the story: These people love each other but also love the king. Life puts them in an unwinnable situation.”
Rickert calls the OHTC show more earthy and less glamorous. Yet, Fernando is taking the 67-year-old musical and updating it with design elements that traverse post-Roman Britain, the Celts, punk rock, and even including modern updates. “I want the audience to not see this as a historical flashback, but a theme that has lived and still lives within the world,” he tells. An abstract set is being designed by Terry Collins, Fernando looks to cull a monumental feeling, even organic and interpretive.
“I have taken many cues from contemporary dance and operatic scenic designs I have enjoyed around the world and pulled them together for our look,” he notes. Jason Aycock is behind the energetic and youthful choreography, while Scott Davis is using light to paint the sets and actors.
“There are hundreds of light cues, sidelights, robotics, haze, dry ice, hand held instruments (for shadow puppetry, by Gina Gambony), and other striking effects,” Fernando tells. “It will feel like a cross between a visit to a Matisse exhibition and a rock concert—colorful, larger than life, and at times intimidating.”
The famed score will be led by Lorene Walsh and her orchestra. “While there are production elements that are new and innovative for the piece, the music is sacred,’ Fernando notes.
Yet, folks will walk away from the show with a powerful message to digest—one that may hit close to home on some level. That’s the magic of “Camelot”: It’s not a place or a time. It is the past, present and future.
“You have to admire the world [King Arthur’s] trying to create,” Setzler says.
“Even during the last scene,” Fernando adds, “King Arthur tells a young boy that Merlin told him about a future where world leaders sit around a ‘round world’ rather than a ‘round table’ with the hope they protect freedom and justice, and use might for right.”
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
July 5-9, 14-16, 21-23, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
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