Camelot has gone on the David Lee diet. The results are extraordinary.
Under Lee’s guidance, the Lerner and Loewe musical sheds such distracting minor characters as Merlyn, Nimue, Pellinore and Morgan Le Fey, as well as most of its visual furbelows. Lee highlights the central romantic triangle of Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot, achieving greater emotional intensity than usual, at a brisker pace.
As an extra added attraction, Lee’s eight-actor, no-star-name version must cost less than a traditional Camelot would have. No doubt that’s a bonus as the Pasadena Playhouse, like most theater companies, tries to recover from the recession. Fortunately, the aesthetic reasons for Lee’s vision overshadow the economic rationale.
The casting of Shannon Stoeke as King Arthur illustrates Lee’s point of view. As his program bio reveals, Stoeke recently played the cynical villain Mordred — Arthur’s long-lost son — in the recent Camelot tour that played La Mirada with Michael York as Arthur and Westwood with Lou Diamond Phillips. Has any other actor ever graduated from Mordred to Arthur?
But Lee wanted to depict Arthur as a very human being — after all, the play is about how people can muck up their best hopes and dreams. In Alan Jay Lerner’s script, Arthur wasn’t born to be a king — he accidentally stumbled into the job. Stoeke is reminiscent of that nice guy from the next cubicle who unexpectedly got promoted to be the boss, except that Stoeke can sing better than the guy next door — and also better than those more famous celebrity Arthurs whom I just mentioned. He’s also at the right age to be persuasive as both the younger and the older Arthur.
His Guenevere, Shannon Warne, is in the very unusual — perhaps unprecedented — position of being the only woman on stage in Camelot. Her former ladies in waiting apparently got tired of waiting for their brief moment as objects of desire in “The Lusty Month of May.” This means that Warne has to pull off the female side of that number, as well as that of the subsequent “Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” all by herself.
At first this might sound like too much flirtiness for one woman to handle — and there’s a sign that perhaps Lee initially felt that way. The list of musical numbers in the printed program omits “Then You May Take Me to the Fair.” But it’s restored to the list on a one-page insert added to the programs. As you see Warne in action during these numbers, they don’t feel like one too many. Guenevere’s seemingly innocent come-ons here can be read as foreshadowing the straying eye that eventually would lead to her downfall. (By the way, has any other Camelot ever cast actors as Arthur and Guenevere who share the same first name? I doubt it.)
Then there’s Doug Carpenter, most recently seen as the handsome hunk in Life Could Be a Dream at the Hudson, playing a role that’s actually somewhat similar in Camelot, despite the gap of centuries between the two eras. His Lancelot is young and earnest and blessed with golden pipes as well as looks.
Lee gives us a very brief glimpse of Lancelot and Guenevere in a nude embrace at a particularly poignant moment. It’s justified not only as a demonstration of what the two illicit lovers are doing but also as a dramatization of what Arthur imagines them doing. Any concerned parents should understand that a director’s choices can’t be guided by the age of the youngest theatergoers — and act accordingly.
In other words, Lee treats Camelot as an entertainment for adults who understand life’s ups and downs, not as a G-rated pageant with pretty songs, sword fights, colorful costumes and, oh yes, a story. Theatergoers who are about 50 — the same age as Camelot itself — will appreciate certain elements of the show that might have eluded them several decades earlier.
That Lee’s revival also coincides with the administration of a youngish Democratic president, just as it did 50 years ago, provides an avenue for even wider reflections on its meaning. Of course the association of the Kennedy Administration with Camelot might have been tarnished by the revelations that it was JFK, not his wife, who broke his marital vows. But the overall spirit of King Arthur evoked by Lerner’s book and its Kennedy-loving fans has parallels with the hope generated by the Obama Administration — a hope that’s now being tested not by adultery but by Senate rules and public impatience.
Not many revivals of musicals generate thoughts on so many levels. I’m eager to see Lee devote a similarly searching sensibility to that other Lerner & Loewe classic, My Fair Lady — might Lee be the director who finally figures out how to deal with its somewhat unconvincing ending?
In the meantime, for at least one brief shining moment, The Lee Diet has given Camelot a new lease on life.
Camelot, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 4 and 8 pm; Sun., 2 and 7 pm. Dark on Tues., Jan. 19 and Weds. Jan. 27. On Wed., Feb. 3, 2 pm matinee instead of 8 pm. Closes Feb. 7. 626-356-7529. www.Pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Photo by Craig Schwartz.