Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
First the original, then the dark and edgy, now the whimsical. The Camelot that opened last night at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is several steps removed from the original version that opened on Broadway in 1960, winning 4 Tony Awards and running for a then-stellar 873 performances. It is not at all the sort of gritty, Game of Thrones-inspired spin that touched down in St. Paul last year. This vision of the tale of King Arthur embraces self-consciousness, awkwardness, and awkward passion.
The King Arthur in this production is played by CDT veteran Keith Rice, who brings a combination of youthful self-doubt and engaging eagerness to the role. This is not Rice’s normal recipe – his recent turns on Chanhassen’s stage have been more the grizzled sort – but it works very well, especially in bringing pathos to the Act II endgame. Michael Brindisi’s direction emphasizes moments that are both comic and poetic, sometimes to the consternation of the characters – qualities in T.H. White’s source novel The Once and Future King that helped inspired the Broadway musical, the 1963 Disney animated film The Sword and the Stone, and J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore, and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.
One of the riches mined in this vein are the whimsical costumes by Rich Hansom. None of the armor is even vaguely realistic – these are costume signifiers, evoking the costumes of 80s rock and medieval metal bands with a touch of video game fantasy armor. Accuracy is not the point, but they are fun to look at, like the ab-rippling horse jousting ballet in Act I. They also communicate a lot of personality about the characters that wear them, which is always important in a musical like this where the side characters say very little out loud. The paired costumes for Guenevere and Arthur, however, are more clearly historical in their bent – and come in a gorgeous progression with breathtaking detail that makes you look forward to what new scene changes will bring.
There is a certain earnestness about the character portrayals that Brindisi has cultivated. While you laugh at their antics, you also want to root for them even as sow the seeds of destruction. Helen Anker’s Guenevere is charming in her self-doubt, with glances of apology and acknowledgment – a good foil for Rice’s Arthur. Some aspects of her performance clearly channel Julie Andrews, about which will simply be said that some acts are hard to follow. The musical score isn’t really the feature in this production; it’s engaging, certainly, and pleasant, but the speed of its delivery makes it clear that attention should be said on what’s spoken and unspoken.
After the costume and pageantry, the most striking aspect of this Camelot is its treatment of love and passion and how they spring from certain moments – Guenevere’s realization of Arthur’s identity, the verbal sparring between Guenevere and Lancelot (an excellent Aleks Knezevich), and Merlin (David Anthony Brinkley)’s ensorcellement by Nimue (Renee Guittar). Passion often overrides our senses, and even when there’s no Mordred (a delectably biting Tony Vierling) around there’s hell to pay.
The crowd-pleasing number “Fie on Goodness” is noticeably absent in Act II. This song was cut from Camelot‘s original Broadway run but restored in most later productions; here, the cut makes sense – including it would place more agency (or blame) on Mordred, rather than on the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot love triangle destroying itself. That’s an interesting take to consider in an age where blaming others is de rigeur.
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