At the end of the musical “Camelot”, King Arthur is on the stage alone, realizing that the grand notions and the lofty ideas of his beloved Camelot are gone. A boy comes running up to him, wanting to be Knight of the Round Table, based on the stories he has heard of the legendary Camelot. King Arthur then sings the final reprise of the song Camelot, saying:
Before you drift to sleep upon your cot,
Think back on all the tales that you remember
Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Now say it out with pride and joy!
Yes, Camelot, my boy!
Where once it never rained till after sundown,
By eight a.m. the morning fog had flown…
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
When it was announced that the Pasadena Playhouse was closing, I thought that a revision of Camelot was a poor choice for a final musical. It was an old retread, a musical that had been done to death. I felt that the Pasadena Playhouse should go out in full glory, doing a successful new musical or something. After all, it certainly had the history of successful musicals, from Radio Gals, Sisterella, and Heartbeats to recent successes such as Mask, Vanities, and Sister Act. But last night, as I sat in my subscription seat watching the penultimate presentation of their current musical, Camelot, this song was sung…. and it hit me. This was the perfect musical to go out on.
So, theatre-goers, each evening from December to December, before you drift to sleep upon your cot, think back on all the stories you remember, of the Pasadena Playhouse. Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story, and tell it strong and clear if he has not, that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory that was the Pasadena Playhouse… This was a theatre that, during its second lifetime, achieved some remarkable successes in its old castle on El Molino. Yet for all its lofty ideas and excellence of execution, it was done in by something petty: money woes. And thus, Camelot was destroyed, to exist only in our memories. A fitting metaphor indeed.
And so, we come to Camelot, the final production of the current Pasadena Playhouse team. In this production we see some of the greatness that the Pasadena Playhouse could do, and we also see what lead to its downfall, and hints of what could have saved it.
Camelot, like the Pasadena Playhouse, has led a troubled life. A musical with wonderful music and lyrics by Frederick Lerner and Alan Loewe, it has always had a troubled life. The book, based on “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White an adapted by Alan Lerner, struggled to tell the story coherently, plus there was loads of music that couldn’t be fit in. Numerous reinventions were tried, and although people were attracted, it never quite worked. Sound familiar?
This latest incarnation was directed by David Lee, who has done revisions of a number of classic musicals at The Pasadena Playhouse, including Can-Can and Do I Hear a Waltz?. His approach to Camelot was to strip it to its bones — he removes the extraneous characters and pagentry, taking the story down to its heart: the love triangle between Arthur, Guenivere, and Lancelot. No extravagent sets and scenery: his stage is bare-bones, consisting of a series of platforms. No elaborate castles: his castle is a portrait hanging on the wall, his trees are branches, and his round table is implied. No fancy props and costumes: his clothing is peasant-garb, his armor is a shiny vest. No excesses of people: his cast is small, consisting of the three principles (Arthur, Guenny, and Lance), three knights (Lionel, Dinadan, and Sagramore), a son (Mordred), and a youth. Yet Lee pulls out of this staging the gem: a story that works, characters that are accessible and human, a Camelot writ small. Yet there are still problems: the end seems to come too fast, there are elements of the story you want to see but are hidden and untold. You feel there are goings-on behind the scenes that are important to explain the downfall, but you can only guess. As I said before, sounds familiar.
There are aspects of this staging that are wonderful. The actors turn and announce the scenes. They revel in the playfulness of the minimal setting. No where is this seen better than in the joust scene, where a page repeatedly grabs a sack of wood, and scrambles up the scenery only to drop it down back to the stage to create the sound of the “whack” of battle. It is seen in the lusty joy of The Lusty Month of May; it is seen in the playfulness of You May Take Me To the Faire, and in the repressed fury of Fie on Goodness.
However, it isn’t just the staging that makes this work. When it soars, it soars for what always makes the Playhouse soar: the actor. The casting of this Camelot was perfection. As King Arthur, Shannon Stoeke (who we have seen before in WCE’s Assassins) creates a youthful king that is unsure of himself, a wry leader who is trying his best but is outdone by circumstances. As Guenevere, Shannon Warne (who, again, we’ve seen before in Cabrillo’s Seven Brides of Seven Brothers) is perfection: lusty, playful, coy, smart-sexy (the best kind). She isn’t the cold princess of Julie Andrews; she is a reluctant princess with a wench inside, a strong queen who knows what she wants. She reminds me of Susan Egan who is sexy and playfully inhabits her characters. As Lancelot, Doug Carpenter (who, again, we’ve seen before in Life is But a Dream) is the handsome powerful knight, who perhaps loves himself before his kingdom, and this love takes him down a dangeous path. Carpenter wasn’t as playful as the other two leads, but inhabited his pride and self-confidence. All were great.
The knights of the kingdom were equally strong, although they were more charactures than distinct personalities: Zachary Ford as Sir Lionel, Richard R. Segall as Sir Dinadan, and Andrew Ross Wynn as Sir Sagramore. Newcomer Will Bradley plays various small roles in the first act, but shines in the second as an evil Mordred. Rounding out the cast is the youth, Seth Daly, who again plays multiple roles, as well as a mean violin. This minimal cast is perfection.
Technically, this production worked well, thanks to a number of Pasadena Playhouse regulars. Tom Buderwitz did a delightfully minimal set (as opposed to the elegant but overdone sets the Playhouse usually does). Lighting, by Michael Gilliam, mostly worked, although at times the spot was a bit harsh and shakey. Other lighting elements (especially the changes to the moon at the end to reveal a smiling Merlin) were great. The costumes by Maggie Morgan were minimalist but served their purpose: to provide a hint of the elegance without being overdone. The sound, by Vikram Kirby was clear thoughout, although initially you could sense the amplification. Kirby wins the best bio award: his starts out with the line “Vikram Kirby’s design philosphy incorporates a deep love for the laws of physics as well as a promise to always be willing to try to bend them if the work requires it.” Providing the excellent musical direction, as well as orchestrations and additional arrangements, was Christy Crowl (who led the offstage 12 member orchestra). Musical staging by Mark Esposito was more integrated into the story than formal dancing, and was quite good.
Casting was by the ominipresent Michael Donovan, with Patty Onagan handing press and the Playhouse magazine. Jill Gold served as Production Stage Manager, with Lea Chazin as Assistant Stage Manager. Thanks also to all the behind-the-scenes folks and the house managers we saw every visit. We will miss you.
This was the penultimate production of “Camelot”. Tonight is the last show of “Camelot”, and the last production on the Playhouse mainstage. Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as the Pasadena Playhouse.
Upcoming Theatre. As for us, what’s upcoming on the theatre calendar? Next week sees us at our other subscription home, Cabrillo Music Theatre, for “The Andrews Brothers”. The weekend after that has two shows: Saturday evening sees us in North Hollywood for Interact Theatre’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at the NoHo Arts Center, with Sunday bringing the February installment of “Meeting of Minds”: Episode 23 with Jean Smart as Catherine the Great, Ian Buchanan as Oliver Cromwell, and James Handy as Daniel O’Connell. The last week of February is open, although I’m debating “Celedine” at the Colony Theatre. In March, I’m waiting for discount tickets to show for “The Story of My Life” at the Havok Theatre, hopefully to be booked on March 6. I also have to schedule “On Golden Pond” at REP East, which I’ll schedule for either March 14 or March 28. All I know for sure is that March 21 will be “Meeting of Minds”. April brings more of potential interest, mostly unscheduled, including “Damn Yankees” at Van Nuys HS (April 15-17), “See What I Wanna See” at the Blank (4/10-5/23), the So Cal Ren Faire (4/10-5/23), “12 Angry Men” at REP East (4/23-5/2), and “The 39 Steps” at the Ahmanson (4/27-5/16).
As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.