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Review: Trinity Rep’s Camelot

Saturday, September 18, 2010

 

When a director takes on a classic musical, he faces the same precipice that every actor does who takes the stage and has to utter, "To be or not to be... ."

Call it the chestnut challenge, and there may be no more challenging chestnut than Camelot, the Lerner and Loewe 1960 Broadway musical based on the Arthurian legend, that's become nearly as legendary as its storyline. Who doesn't hear Robert Goulet (himself a chestnut) crooning those admittedly sentimental lines, If ever I would leave you... who doesn't picture Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave as Arthur and Guenevere... who doesn't feel the alluring retreat to more innocent times of heraldry and chivalry, not to mention simple meter and rhymes?

So what has Trinity's Curt Columbus done with his Camelot, opening this weekend, to beat the chestnut challenge? It turns out this Camelot takes a conservative line, making no extreme commitments to reimaginings, but playing down the middle with a framing device and some dashes of outlandish comedy.

It begins well. In fact, it begins with first glimpse of the set: a London Underground stop that fills the stage to near tile-and-concrete overflow, by legendary designer Eugene Lee. It's breathtakingly three-dimensional, appropriately grimy, not the least bit romantic. The clash with the halcyon legend we expect to play out is juicy, and bodes well.

The conceit is that during the Blitz, Londoners took shelter and put on entertainments in these Tube tunnels, but from the opening number forward, the play within the Tube sets off with very little relationship to its own framing device. There's an occasional whine and rumble of bombing, and Arthur's first entrance (in the original play he's in a tree), puts him atop a makeshift bunk bed. Beyond that, though, it's just Camelot. In clothes from the 1940s.

It makes one wonder how much more could have been mined from this rich territory, particularly given that the show opens with a newsreel projected onto a bedsheet screen. Imagery from England - pungent parallels to our own path of coronations of sorts, wars, and yearning for simpler days - could have returned and accented, heightened, moments in the show. But the set, for the most part, plays only its most basic service to the story.

What then, to make of the play as it rolls forward? We receive in the hands of Trinity vet Stephen Thorne a boyish, near-nerdy Arthur. And we watch him fall for a slightly brassy, slightly jaded Guenevere who, described by the broad vocal punch of Rebecca Gibel, seems to outman her man. But when Thorne takes on his own precipice and begins the so-well-known-lines of the musical's namesake song, we feel him take control. Thorne navigates the song with earnest control, and it's winning. He's our king, and when he says, later, that he's never felt a king until he'd laid eyes on Guenevere, we believe him.

Things wobble, though, in the forced posturing of Lancelot, roostered by the talented Joe Smith, Jr., into a parody of a knight, and with a French accent that veers dangerously close to Monty Python territory. It may suit Lancelot's opening preening number, "C'est Moi," but it makes his irresistibility to Guenevere hard to believe.

Fundamentally, these three passionate characters, each loving in isoscelean symmetry, need to radiate these passions so that we suffer when Lancelot sings of leaving Guenevere, and when Arthur laments his betrayal. But the distance between the tone of each of these performances, at least early in the run, skirts the fundamental chemistries and attractions that make those Lerner and Loewe songs so poignant.

The supporting performances, drawn comically and broad (nearly music hall in tone, which may have been an intentional choice, given the 1940s English setting), are amusing. Barbara Meek infuses questing king (and longtime Camelot houseguest) Pellinore with a creaky Don Quixote quality. With a walk that's all fused knees and a spine as stiff as all of England, her entrances and exits are wonderful.

In utter contrast, Janice Duclos' Morgan Le Fey rides in, satined, feathered, and fright-wigged, from the outtakes of a John Waters film. In fact, Duclos' big performance prompts the question: what if this Camelot just went all the way to Drag Bingo and never returned? Wouldn't that be a ride?

But this Camelot, tucked underground, isn't the production for a wild ride, in any particular direction. Like the wry pun contained in Tube signage at the crest of the set: Knightsbridge one way, King's Cross the other, this Camelot insists on remaining solidly between the rails.

Photos: Rebecca Gibel and Stephen Thorne as Guenevere and Arthur; Joe Wilson, Jr., as Lancelot
 

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