2/21/2020     CAMELOT                     Atlanta Lyric Theatre
           
THE ONCE AND FUTURE LERNER AND LOEWE

(Bias Alert:  I have collaborated with actors J.D. Myers, Daniel Pino, and Claudio Pestana, and tend to view their work through approval-tinted glasses.)

 

Okay, here's my problem.  I'm a long-term fan of the Arthurian legends and have read (and keep in my library) countless versions of the stories.  It's one of those tales we associate with a specific era (Malory's 15th Century milieu) that's actually set centuries earlier -- that undocumented "dark age" between Roman domination of Britain, and the rise of, well, Britain (aka the Norman domination of Britain).  It is filled with shining moments of heroism and sacrifice and virtue and not a few darker moments of evil and villainy.  It has magic and wizards and romance. 

 

In short, it has everything that warms the hearts and minds of forever-adolescent boys (and, I submit, girls) of every generation.

 

Camelot, the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical of the legend also has a lot to recommend it -- high theatricality, exquisite melodies, clever lyrics, and even a few shining moments of power, pain, and glory.

 

At the same time, it has a few (hopefully unintended) subtexts that I find a bit unpalatable, specifically, the ideas that mankind is essentially savage and needs a strong King to achieve civilization, that evil and manipulation will

will ALWAYS trump goodness, and that the turn of a pretty face will destroy a lifetime of virtue.  More to the point, it tries to overturn these unpleasant themes with a hasty coda extolling the virtue of story (some scholars have identified the boy in the final scene – Tom of Warwick – as Sir Thomas Mallory, author of Le Morte D’Arthur, one of the first official tellings of the saga.  If history throws you lemons, turn them into a fancy legend and all will be well!

 

And yet, despite these misgivings, Atlanta Lyric Theatre has mounted a spirited and moving production that pushes all the expected pleasure-buttons, giving us the grandeur and lyrical splendor that highlights all versions of this oft-told tale.

 

In this version (based on T.H. White’s 1958 compilation of older stories, The Once and Future King), set in a vague "anytime" between 1300 and 1500, a nervous Arthur is waiting to meet his arranged bride, Guinevere, daughter of a king whose friendship is a must for peace.  An equally nervous Guinevere meets him and befriends him without knowing who he is.  Faster than you can say "Meet Cute," several years have passed, the wizard Merlyn has been enchanted into his eternal cave, and Arthur is creating a "Might FOR Right" haven of virtue and civilization.  Into this garden come two characters -- the valiant and pure French knight, Lancelot du Lac, and the not-so-valiant-and-pure Mordred, the son of Arthur from an adolescent enchantment.  What could possibly go wrong?

 

The highlight, of course, of any Camelot is the rapturous score by Lerner and Loewe.  Many of these songs have entered the “Great American Songbook,” particularly “If Ever I Would Leave You, “Before I Gaze at You Again,” and “I Loved You Once in Silence.”  Curiously, this last song has been cut from the show;  Camelot has a history of “score tweaking” (songs dropped, re-added, and shuffled in various revivals and iterations) that it is impossible to determine if the exclusion were a directorial choice, or a change in the officially licensed book.**  Whatever the source, the show is still Camelot, and Lerner and Loewe have given us a wide range of solos and large-scale chorus numbers that drive the story.  Thankfully my favorites – “Fie on Goodness” and the 11o’clock epic “Guinevere” remain intact and thrillingly staged.

 

Admittedly, “How to Handle a Woman” has not aged particularly well, especially its basic idea that women NEED to be “handled”; but still, the love story remains moving and complex, and the score reverberates, moves, and stirs something that remains universal and appealing.

 

The standout in this cast is, IMHO, Lyndsay Ricketson’s Guinevere.  She has a breathtakingly beautiful soprano (that even ventures into the stratospheric coloratura range at one point) and makes these songs exquisitely her own.  More to the point, she creates an indelible character, full of fire and spirit that perfectly counterpoints the reserved authority of Corey James Wright’s Arthur and the overbearing self-confidence of J.D. Myers’ Lancelot.  Also memorable is Daniel Pino’s Mordred who takes a positively gleeful approach to wickedness and Jeanette Illidge’s Nimue, who is alluring enough to make her one short scene (“Follow Me”) a highlight of the show.  Greg Hunter is over-the-top eccentric as Pellinore and Claudio Pestano makes for a memorably doddering Merlyn.  If the supporting knights tend toward interchangeability, that is not helped by the elimination of the “Take me to the Fair” number, which, truth to tell, is more often cut from productions than included.  Still the knights and ladies of the ensemble make for an almost-perfect choral sound, the harmonies and balance perfectly tuned by Music Director Paul Tate and Sound Designer Michelle Jarvis.  The live 10-piece orchestra (under Mr. Tate’s direction) gives the entire production a gloriously full sound that fills the ears and the heart like a dream.

 

Lee Shiver-Cerone’s sets all share a “castle battlement” base that doesn’t always make logistical sense (seeing a distant castle from a castle for example), but makes for quick and elegant transitions, so that various scenes can be as simple as images behind a scrim, or as grand as Arthur’s tapestried throne room.  Ben Rawson’s lighting design seems traditionally simple, but is nevertheless effectively evocative, especially in his choice of color and angle,

 

But it is Ananda Edgerton West’s costumes that are the giddy achievement of this tech ensemble.  From simple tunics to glorious gowns, Ms. West’s work is a singular achievement, especially the Nimue gown that is superhumanly large and vivid and magical.   

 

Director Mira Hirsch has a sure hand with this classic, keeping movement simple and elegant, keeping interactions alive and convincing, and keeping the pace of this three-hour show seemingly light as a feather.

 

Camelot is one of those rare musicals that actually characterize an era;  it premiered as the Kennedy years were starting, and, due to JFK’s fondness for the score, defined his white house.  Of course the irony is that Kennedy‘s Camelot was cut short far too soon, just as the legendary Camelot was.  But the IDEA of Camelot apparently cannot be stilled, no matter how often the darker aspects of humanity would wish it so.  A.L.T’s production is a magical, musical, and memorable examination of the allure of idealism as well as the cost of friendship and love and honor.  It remains one of my all-time favorites,

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy     #altCamelot)

 

** For those keeping score on the score, “If Ever I Would Leave You” has been moved to the traditional “I Loved You Once in Silence” slot before the climactic “Guinevere” and its old slot (top of Act II) has been filled by a reprise of “Before I Gaze at You Again.”  I’m not convinced these changes “tighten” or clarify the story so much as just make it different, aggravating us who were fans of the dropped song.

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