Westport’s Pared Down “Camelot” Features Terrific Performances

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Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 The production of Camelot now playing at Westport Country Playhouse through Nov. 5. Is a major revision/reimagining of the original large scale musical by Lerner and Loewe that opened in 1960.

Elements of this show work particularly well, the three leads are terrific and the ensemble is also good. But I had some reservations that the show has been so pared down, it has lost some of it essence.

The musical by Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady, Gigi) tells the story of King Arthur, his Queen Guenevere and the virtuous knight, Lancelot. The book of the musical, originally by Lerner, is based on T. H. White’s trilogy The Once and Future King which tells the story of King Arthur from a boy receiving tutoring from the magician Merlin to the downfall of the Round Table and Arthur’s ultimate defeat/death. It is a long book.

That was part of the problem with the original show; trying to cram all of White’s story led to a very long show. The out-of-town tryout in Canada ran over four hours; by the time the show made it to Broadway in 1960, it was down to under three hours but the result was that some elements did not seem set up properly.

In the last years, several attempts have been made to streamline the book, usually removing elements to focus on the love triangle.  Lerner’s son attempted it and that version was used for the outstanding 2009 production at Goodspeed.

Now David Lee has adapted the book, removing even more elements and characters. He may have gone too far.

This Camelot is almost what would be called “a chamber musical.” Besides the three principals, there are only six other characters including a child who is used as a framing device for the show. In fact the orchestra has almost the same number of players (eight) as the entire cast. But I particularly felt the lack of other women. The ensemble is totally male. In this court, only the Queen was allowed.

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Britaney Coleman and Stephen Mark Lukas. Phot by Carol Rosegg

The scenic design by Michael Yeargan features a looming silhouette of a castle in the back, a series of arches framing parts of the stage and minimal furniture and props. One that was annoying were two beds that were supposed to stay together, but kept coming apart. Luckily, this production does not try to overly simplify the costumes by Wade Laboissonniere. They still have a regal medieval sensibility and at times seems quite luxurious. Also a major contributor to the show’s success is the lighting design by Robert Wierzel who enfuses the rear of the stage in saturated colors.

In this version of Camlot , the haunting “Follow Me” is removed. But also several characters are missing – some are missed more than others. Merlin the magician had served a function of helping set the stage – after all he was Arthur’s teacher and a major part of the Arthurian legend; since he lived time backwards, he knew what would happen Also missing is the comic King Pellinore, though he contributed little except some laughs to a rather serious story. Morgan Le Fey, the witch is also gone; she had seduced Arthur when he was young which resulted in the birth of Mordred who engineers the downfall of Guenevere, Lancelot and the Roundtable.

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Robert Sean Leonard and Patrick Andrews. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Mark Lamos, who has a sure hand with musicals, opera and Shakespeare has directed this expertly. He is blessed with a fine cast and excellent voices. Though the running time is shorter than the original, he still develops the emotional impact of the piece. For this is a show where the only villain is the cynical Mordred. Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere all gain our sympathy. I do question how he has framed this piece. The show opens with a young boy in pajamas who at times returns to play with toy knights. Is this to imply that it is all a dream? It just seems distracting and reminiscent of a Royal Shakespeare film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Robert Sean Leonard is excellent as Arthur. He does not try to duplicate Richard Burton’s portrayal but develops his own. Perhaps my only complaint is that in the opening numbers where he and Guenevere meet, he doesn’t seem quite boyish enough. But he handles the scenes where he becomes increasingly aware of Guenevere and Lancelot’s love for each with finesse. His rendition of “How to Handle a Woman” and the duet ‘What Do the Simple Folk Do?” are excellent.

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Robert Sean Leonard and Britney Coleman. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Britany Coleman is a delight as Guenevere. She has a light soprano voice well suited to the songs from the light-hearted “Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” to the serious “I Loved You Once in Silence” and “Before I Gaze on You Again.” But she also create a character obviously torn between two men – one she loves passionately and one she is fond of and respects.

As Lancelot, Stephen Mark Lukas is also excellent, tempering Lancelot’s sense of his perfection with awareness that he is failing both himself and Arthur. His duets with Guenevere and his egotistic song “C’est Moi” are well done.

Patrick Andrews plays the villain, Mordred, who appears in the second act looking and acting like the snake in the Garden of Eden. His two numbers, “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and “Fie on Goodness” both hit the mark.

The actors portraying the three knights who are supplanted by Lancelot create individual characterizations: Mike Evariste (Sir Dinadan), Brian Owen (Sir Lionel) and Jon-Michael Reese (Sir Sagamore).  Brian Owens played Sir Lionel with a punk rock look and a Scottish accent.

Wayne Barker’s musical direction and the ensemble never overpowered the performers but added to the production. It was especially good to hear a strings (violin, cello and bass) as part of the ensemble.

Camelot may not be a perfect musical but it is blessed with wonderfully lyrical music. Though this revision may have gone too far, it is still a production well worth seeing.

It is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport through Nov. 5. For tickets visit Westport or call 203-227-4177.

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Britney Coleman and Robert Sean Leonard. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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