Opera House Theatre Company made me very happy with anticipation when they announced “Camelot” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe would grace Thalian Hall. As the title suggests, it is an adaptation of the Arthurian legend, specifically T.H. White’s brilliant novel, “The Once and Future King.”
The 1960 premiere, directed by Moss Hart, coincided with the Kennedy administration and the themes of “might for right” as opposed to “might is right”—with chivalry, justice and idealism as aspirations humanity could attain. It resonated strongly with the times and hopes of a new decade.
In 1967 a film adaptation was released that capitalized on a sense of nostalgia and provided a beautifully stylized vehicle for idealism cloaked as escapism. Perhaps that is what I love so much about “Camelot”: It is, at its core, a show about idealism. It faces evil with goodness, and looks through the glamour, created by magic and illusion, at human deceit to see substance that lies beneath. Perhaps, most importantly, it is about learning to love people for who they are, as they try to become who they deserve—which is one of the hardest things we must do on this shared journey of life. Lerner’s book and lyrics are filled with stylized, satirical humor that preserves White’s voice from the novel and provides a lovely counterpoint to the seriousness of the material … because the material is serious. It deals with the depths of human psychology, longing, love, disappointment, and hope.
The story picks up with Guinevere’s (Heather Setzler) arrival at Camelot for her marriage to Arthur (Sam Robison). Arthur has relatively little experience with women, so he is actually pretty nervous about the whole thing (“I Wonder What The King is Doing Tonight?”). Unbeknownst to him, Guinevere has escaped from her entourage and is lost in the woods, searching for all the excitement of youth that has been denied her (“The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”).
Setzler and Robison engage in verbal pas de deux that borders on flirtation yet manages to veer far enough into familiarity to include the King of England apologizing for upsetting her—even though he has no idea what has upset her. (“I have so been there,” my date chuckled). Robison tries to convince her to stay in Camelot with a flirtatious sales pitch (“Camelot”) about the wonderful qualities of the area. It is part exposition, part pickup line, part plea to be liked, even loved.
Setzler’s Guinevere has elegance, poise and a snappy sense of humor. She begins the show as a teenager snatched from her comfortable home and sent without consultation to an arranged marriage to seal a treaty. She ages into a power in her own right and a woman comfortable ruling her husband with kindness, prodding and humor. That is until a rival for her husband’s affection appears.
Enter the greatest knight the world has ever known—the height of physical perfection and spiritual purity: Lancelot du Lac (Christopher Rickert). In a turn of events faced by many-a-wife, Guinevere finds herself displaced in her husband’s attention and affection by his new best friend. Anything Guinevere might suggest is dismissed, but if it comes from Lancelot’s lips, it is deemed brilliant. How does Arthur compete? How does Arthur help mold a young boastful perspective with humility? Guinevere stacks the deck with three of the strongest knights challenging Lancelot in a joust. The stage is set for Lancelot’s downfall, but it is greater than anyone ever imagined, because he and Guinevere find themselves falling inescapably in love—a love neither can act upon because of their love, admiration and respect for Arthur. Rickert sings nicely, but, frankly, I wouldn’t throw away a kingdom over his Lancelot. Yet, Robison as Arthur grippingly convinces in his dawning realization of what has happened to the two people he loves most in the world. He lurches between anger, torment, pain, jealousy, and acceptance.
Terry Collins recycled some of the abstract boards from the recently staged “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and added three rolling pyramid step platforms that are supposed to be rocks or castle steps. Really, it gives the performers very little in the way of environment with which to interact.
Director Shane Fernando notes in the program that “Camelot is not a time or place.” Indeed his vision for this show is not a traditional staging by any means. There are many people who will find it refreshing and interesting. The ensemble are dressed as refugees from a biker-themed rave but look like they took a wrong turn and got lost somehow in daylight. I wanted to see nobility; they are supposed to be greatest, most chivalrous knights in all the land, but the parades were studies of the slouch. The script is filled with inspiration to be better than we are, to be more for our fellow travelers on this very plane.
The enchanted forest seems to have merged with Morgan Le Fey’s “Invisible Castle” because it is nowhere to be found onstage. “The Lusty Month of May,” which features an interesting white boxer-shorts theme, includes a dance that lacks any titillations, joy or excitement. When Setzler finally gets to sing the song, I wondered why anyone would want to distract from her beautiful voice.
Mordred (Eddie Waters)—Arthur’s illegitimate son, whose mission in life is the destruction of Camelot for his own personal gain—is a role that has the potential to break Guinevere’s heart and should destroy Arthur’s. She has not given Arthur an heir; yet, here is one in the flesh, almost an adult, and Arthur is ready to love him. I usually love Waters onstage, but his Mordred is too much of a hammer, too obvious, too unlikeably obscene to make the real depth of his destructive power felt.
Fernando’s show might be a raunchier “Camelot,” but what is lost is the power of its message. Personally, I wanted trees and a castle. I wanted enchantment, ladies in pretty dresses and knights with courtly manners. I didn’t need to have the film; no one has Jack Warner’s unlimited budget. I would have settled for fight scenes that were either stylized enough to be interesting or realistic enough to be exciting. This is “Camelot” purely for an adult audience—not one I would take a 5-year-old to as an introduction to the magic of live theatre.
The saving grace: Setzler’s and Robison’s performances sell their characters’ struggles. I believed them and wanted desperately for them to find happiness. I wanted their relationship, their love, to find a safe harbor. When Robison describes how if he could pick any woman in the world, he would have picked her, and any friend in the world, he would have picked Lance, his torment looked like it was destroying him.
Setzler faced the challenge of a role made famous by Julie Andrews and rather than shying away, she goes at it with a beautiful voice and incredible poise. I would pay just to listen to her sing “I Loved You Once in Silence.” It is an interesting update on one of the greatest stories that has captivated the human mind and heart for centuries. For some, it will hit the spot.