Camelot Revival Offers Modern Take On King Arthur

Published: Thursday, February 12, 2015 By: John P. McCarthy Source: The Journal News

Westchester Broadway Theatre can be relied on for traditional, straightforward interpretations of the great musicals, but their new production of Lerner & Loewe's "Camelot" is a fascinating exception. This is not your grandparents' — or even your parents' — "Camelot."

Nothing outlandish or avant-garde transpires — it's not set on Mars in the year 3535. Yet its novel depiction of King Arthur and his relationship with Guenevere will challenge some basic assumptions about the show.

Typically, Arthur is a stolid, virile figure, who, prodded by the wizard Merlin, tries to modernize his realm by championing civility and reason over brute force and war. He's a battle-hardened soldier who becomes a wise statesman. And he's considerably older than Guenevere.

According to director Richard Sabellico's conception, with a substantial reworking of the book (with permission from both the Lerner and Loewe estates), Arthur models a significantly different masculine ideal. This is very much a contemporary Arthur — a man and monarch for the 21st century.

Played by Clark Scott Carmichael, he's sensitive and diffident. Prone to whining, he doesn't try to mask his vulnerability. He's relatively slight of stature and borderline effete — to the extent it's hard to imagine he's the "greatest warrior in England." And he and Guenevere (Jennifer Hope Wills) appear to be around the same age.

This characterization risks undermining the plausibility of their romantic bond, and the love triangle at the heart of the tale is further destabilized by the production's take on Guenevere. The queen is not a prim and proper maiden, but quite bold and frisky — champing at the bit for fun and excitement.

The most immediate benefit of adding these different facets to Arthur and Guenevere is to enliven Act One, which is quite broad and funny. With so much emphasis on the book's bawdy subtext and double entendre, you sometimes think you're watching a Britcom. The overall aim is to better elucidate their respective character arcs and thereby the plot as a whole.

Sabellico's approach couldn't succeed to the extent it does if Carmichael and Wills weren't such intelligent, expressive actors. It's quickly apparent that Arthur and Guenevere are a devoted married couple — genuinely in love, if not deliriously happy. Although he grows more regal, mature and comfortable in his own skin, Arthur still frets about his kingship and life's purpose. And she's still restless.

When the dashing and supremely self-confident young French knight Lancelot (Jeremiah James) arrives, he solidifies Arthur's thinking about establishing a new order of chivalry, an enlightened legal system, and new  era of peace. He also provides Guenevere with an object for her restiveness.

They fall in love, jeopardizing Arthur's domestic life and civic dream. In a rivetingly melancholy Act Two, tragedy is averted when Arthur, having realized his legacy is intact, behaves magnanimously as husband and king.

"Camelot" wouldn't be worth reviving let alone revising if the score were an afterthought, and this production is excellent musically. Carmichael has a warm voice; Wills' sound is polished and precise,  and James does justice to "If Ever I Would Leave You," one of the musical's most hummable tunes. In the ensemble, Emily Brockway's lovely singing provides enchanting atmospherics.

Sabellico focuses on the inner lives of the characters rather than the pageantry and spectacle. Janell Berte's resplendent costumes compensate to a degree, as does Kyle Dixon's magnificent, though underused, set. When your goal is more intimacy, you can get away with a small company numbering only 11. Yet at times the stage feels too sparsely populated.

This "Camelot" dares to probe deeper and still be entertaining. By offering multidimensional portraits of the royal couple, it speaks to our own society's evolving definitions of masculinity and gender roles. It tests our assumptions about the links between compassion, strength and weakness, and it raises always-relevant questions about what it means to be a virtuous leader and a faithful lover.