Stellar Cast Powers Camelot Revival at New Rep (4.5 Stars)
Camelot – Book & Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; Music by Frederick Loewe; Directed and choreographed by Russell Garrett; Produced by the New Repertory Theatre at the Charles Mosesian Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA through Sunday, December 22.
Having grown up as a boy in the sixties and seventies on pop music and later Rock n Roll, I don’t know why I fell under the spell of the 1967 movie musical version of “Camelot”, given that I usually goofed on the soundtracks of the musicals my mother would sing along to on the record player – but I did. Perhaps it was the over the top acting of Richard Harris as the passionate King Arthur or ethereal beauty of Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere, but this musical was a guilty pleasure for me right into the nineties, when it seemed to run on TV every Thanksgiving night for years. So I was really excited to hear that the New Rep in Watertown was staging a revival to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, and I’m even happier to report that this production by the New Rep does a beautiful job with this Lerner & Loewe hit that did nothing to tarnish my overly romantic vision of this musical.
For those not familiar with the story, it opens in a dense forest (courtesy of John Traub’s imaginative set design) with a skittish King Arthur (Benjamin Evett) being calmed by his mentor Merlyn the Magician on the eve of his arranged marriage to Guenevere of France, whom he has never met. Arthur tells him that he will need to begin making decisions on his own from now on, as he will soon be cast under a spell by a sorceress and unable to guide him. Arthur is even further dismayed when he disappears, and launches into the show’s first number “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight?” Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Arthur, a nearby Guenevere (the perfectly cast Erica Spyres) is herself having reservations about the wedding. She slips away from her entourage and sings her desire for a non-Queen existence (“Simple Joys of Maidenhood”) as Arthur hides nearby. Hiding his identity, he then sells her on his kingdom with the whimsically entertaining title tune “Camelot” with its travelogue-worthy line: “In short, there’s simply not; a more congenial spot; for happily-ever-aftering; than here in Camelot!” – and then convinces her to willingly give her hand.
The two are blissfully married for about five years when Arthur conceives of the idea of “might for right,” (the precursor of the modern justice system) which not only leads to the creation of the Knights of the Round Table, which (initially) brings peace and glory to the kingdom, but also sets the stage for its eventual downfall. The noble idea attracts the Adonis-like, (but pretentious and over-bearing) French Knight named Lancelot du Lac, but its success also eventually draws the attention of his illegitimate and despicable son, Mordred. To them, Arthur will lose his Queen and kingdom, but not before the audience is treated to a beautiful and clever score, romantic heartbreak, political treachery, plus a healthy dose of laughter (especially from Robert D. Murphy as Merlin/Pellinore).
The strength of the show is in its casting, particularly the leads. Erica Spyres is a gem as Guenevere, as she is absolutely radiant in expressing her love for Arthur, then Lancelot; and equally convincingly when she conveys the torture of being in love with another when she winces as if in physical pain when Arthur touches her hair as she gazes at Lancelot after she has fallen for him. After having seen Spyres give two terrific performances in the last year (as Curley’s Wife in “Of Mice and Men” and this fall’s “Tribes”) I mentioned to an actor friend how much I enjoyed her work and he just replied, “Wait until you hear her sing.” She is a gifted and emotional vocalist (especially in “I Loved You Once in Silence”) and even plays the violin during “The Lusty Month of May”. I wouldn’t be surprised that if she were cast in a role that demanded she sing opera while juggling and riding a unicycle, she would do it flawlessly. She’s that good.
Benjamin Evett’s performance is nearly as impressive, as he grew on me as the show went on. By the end of the performance he had erased the memory I had of the insanely big character that Richard Harris had painted in the film version. Marc Koeck as Lancelot was another find, as he fills the role both physically and with his acting chops, and absolutely nails “If Ever I Would Leave You” (the song that made Robert Goulet a star). Murphy’s Pelinore effortlessly delivers most of the show’s laughs, and Nick Sulfaro is so slimily good as the ethically barren Mordred that he made me want to rush the stage and choke him (although his Scottish accent was just plain weird at times).
The choreography by director Russell Garrett is interesting although not exceptional, but it certainly has highlights such as during the “Fie on Goodness” number. The set design is really a strength of the show with its changes from the forest (awesome trees) and the meadow to the interior and exterior castle (including a turret). Although the show is long (3 hours including intermission) it moves quickly and the pacing – especially in the second act – is brisk. If you’re a fan of this musical, this is a don’t miss production, and if you’ve never seen it, you should. For more info, visit: http://www.newrep.org/productions/camelot/