Someone at the Rhinebeck Theatre Society (RTS) came up with a brilliant idea for this autumn’s programming: If you’re going to mount a production of Monty Python’s Spamalot – coming up October 4 for a four-weekend run – why not preface it with a revival of one of the old Broadway warhorses on which it’s partially based, Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot? You have three more chances this weekend to refresh your memory of the musical inspired by T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, with performances at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck (CPAR) beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, September 27 and 28, and a 3 p.m. matinée on Sunday, September 29.
Of course, successfully reviving a show in 2013 that originally ran on Broadway in 1960, starring Richard Burton as Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guenevere and Robert Goulet as Lancelot, presents certain challenges – not least of which is the inescapable fact that musicals were mostly downright corny in the days before Cabaret started pushing the American musical theatre in an edgier direction. How do you sell Camelot’s wholesome JFK-era values of chivalry and honor, “being civilized” and exerting “might for right” to audiences in the modern world – especially post-Python, post-Mists of Avalon and in the midst of widespread popular enthusiasm for the much darker version of the Dark Ages depicted in HBO’s Game of Thrones?
By contrast, Camelot seems awfully lightweight nowadays, even if it does deal with offstage cuckoldry painfully tolerated over a long timespan by the gallant king, and even if it does include some share of murderous betrayal on the part of the young upstart Mordred. But seeing it now, we wonder, “Why does it leave out the juicy incest subplot?” (The play fails to mention that Morgause, Mordred’s mother, is Arthur’s half-sister.) “And why does it end just before the big gory battle scene?” The gender roles in Camelot also seem very dated – more suited to the days of I Love Lucy than to medieval times.
Ah, but it’s in that final scene before the battle that we never see, when Arthur bequeaths the memories of his doomed social experiment of the Round Table to a boy overenthusiastic for combat, that the message of the play still resonates as it did during the innocent days before the Kennedy assassination. For the importance of storytelling as a deathless way of handing down memories, history, culture and values to future generations is a theme as universal as any in Shakespeare. And somewhere buried amongst Camelot’s love songs and sexist jokes is a plea for a return to those elusive goals of civil dialogue and peaceful coexistence that never stops seeming timely, alas.
The RTS production, directed by Russ Austin, tries to freshen up the play a bit, shuffling the order of some events and restoring a couple of songs and scenes from the original that got dropped in later versions – notably one of the feistier, funnier songs, “Fie on Goodness.” The set and lighting design by Andy Weintraub and props by Barbara Melzer make brilliant use of a minimalist budget, using imaginative stencil lighting effects to depict the changing seasons and artfully rearranged draperies to suggest a forest, the pillars of a banquet hall or a magical force-field. Keeping the excellent six-piece orchestra right onstage with the actors throughout the entire performance works beautifully within the context of a medieval court.
The acting is good, but some of the casting choices require excessive exercise of suspended disbelief on the audience’s part – notably the mature two male leads: Joe Eriole as Arthur and David Foster as Lancelot. Both sing well enough and are capable actors, but Foster – to steal a metaphor from another icon set in a medieval universe, The Princess Bride – bears a much stronger resemblance to Wally Shawn as Vizzini than to Cary Elwes as Westley. Maybe the director wanted to evoke White’s conception of Lancelot as the Ill-Made Knight, but it’s just too hard to get the images out of one’s head of the handsome young actors cast in the part in the past, like Goulet in the original cast or Franco Nero in the movie version.
Amy Lawrence Cohen, a 2012 Bard graduate with a degree in vocal performance, sings very well indeed as Guenevere. But there’s no spark of chemistry whatsoever evident between her and Foster – not even in the scene following the joust where she’s supposed to be falling for him quite abruptly. Eriole fares better in his duets with Lawrence Cohen, especially once both characters are caught up in the angst of the bitter love triangle.
A fabulous, high-energy dancer and acrobat, Corey Jason Crysler doubles as a jester in some early ensemble scenes, and steals every scene that he’s in later on as the wicked Mordred. He plays the character like a medieval Captain Jack Sparrow, with equal parts swish and swagger, arrogance and mischief. It becomes tough to resist rooting for him to win out – especially when he stirs up the knights who are bored out of their minds by that paragon of righteousness Lancelot.
Another actor who gets more than a few brief shining moments in this production is Jim Hammill, who is cast most appropriately for his age: as the eccentric King Pellinore. Hammill has excellent comedic timing and great dry delivery, and walks away with the lion’s share of the laughs in RTS’s production of Camelot. Joe Baer also stands out in the dual roles of Merlyn and Sir Lionel.
Seeing this show cannot fail to bring to mind the threads of kinship between Spamalot and earlier iterations of the Matter of Britain – especially the more recent, more humorous versions like White’s and Lerner and Loewe’s – even though the Pythons took the classic tale off the deep end of irreverent silliness and macabre bad taste. Catch this production of Camelot while you can, and then follow it up with Spamalot at CPAR. Each will help you appreciate the other more, and who knows? The combined effect might even inspire you to dip back into The Idylls of the King, Le Morte d’Arthur or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot, Friday/Saturday, September 27/28, 8 p.m., Sunday, September 29, 3 p.m., $26/$24, Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, 661 Route 308, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-3080, https://centerforperformingarts.org.