Originally published on JewishBoston.com.
King Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin and Guenevere have taken the stage at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company, but don’t look for castles, armor, or lances. In Curt Columbus’s production, Camelot has been reset in a tube station during the Blitz, when British civilians sought safety underground as German bombs pelleted the city. I applaud Columbus’s wililngness to treat a classic musical with the same respect and spirit of experimentation he would treat a Shakespearean play. And it’s not a terrible idea for a framing device, both because during the Blitz British theater companies did, in fact, perform in the tube to help keep spirits up, and because Camelot’s source, The Once and Future King, originated in the World War II era. But it’s not a burst of genius that will shed new light on this classic story for you, either.
The good news is that this setting enables a small company like Trinity to tackle a normally large-scale musical comedy like Camelot. And despite what you might remember from the rather dreaery 1967 film, this show is funny. From Stephen Thorne (King Arthur), who has masterful timing, to Joe Wilson, Jr. (Lancelot) who stops the show with his hymn to himself, “C’est Moi,” the cast fully commits to entertaining. As the story turns darker in the second act, the cast reveals dramatic chops equal to their comedic skills. But outside of Wilson and Rebecca Gibel (Guenevere), the cast’s singing doesn’t measure up, and in a musical with as many songs as Camelot, that spells trouble.
The company gives it an honest shot with the music, making the most of a five-piece band supplemented by cast members who add the occasional small instrument (such as hand bells) or vocal flourishes where once were horns. While at times you might find yourself missing a lush orchestra, for the most part the small band is serviceable and unobtrusive.
But trouble comes from the WWII setting. Sure, a piano hauled down to the subway would likely have been out of tune, but should such veracity mean subjecting an audience to an entire musical accompanied by a squawky piano? And when the setting of the framing device begins to impinge on the setting of the play within, such as when the Jousting sequence is recast as a radio broadcast or the sexier musical moments develop swing beats, the conceit falters.
The ultimate failure of the setting comes towards the end of the play, when Arthur finds himself with an unwanted war on his hands. Camelot as written is a pacifist’s plea shouted amidst a world spiraling out of control. In the context of the 60s, with the US rattling its sabres (and worse) against the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Viet Nam, the plea for peace and civility surely rang true. But American audiences don’t view WWII in the same way; even the most pacifist among us look back on the Allies’ fight as just and necessary. Setting Arthur’s struggles to keep the peace against the backdrop of the Blitz left me disconcerted. One senses the production recognized this dilemma — there is but one reference to Germans the entire evening, as though by concentrating on the role of Brittain in WWII we might forget the rest of the context. There are talk-back discussions after each performance, so while I did not stay to work out my feelings with the rest of the audience, you may find that helpful.
Still, if you can look past the awkwardness of the setting, the squeakiness of the piano, and a King Arthur who sings like a nervous eighth-grader at a school recital… there is a good time to be had here. This Camelot isn’t for everyone, but it might be for you.
Camelot by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe runs through October 10 in the Chace Theater, 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI. Tickets are on sale now at the Trinity Rep box office, 201 Washington St.; by phone at (401) 351-4242; and online at http://www.trinityrep.com.
Photo by Mark Turek.