More than one shining spot in 'Camelot'
By Celia Wren
Thursday, November 26, 2009
A compelling spaciousness buoys Olney Theatre Center's "Camelot." It's not just that director-choreographer Stephen Nachamie and his colleagues manage to evoke the musical's medieval pageantry and militarism without fuss and clutter. Nor is it that scenic designer Jeremy W. Foil conjures up castle interiors with translucent panels whose Gothic arches suggest the upper reaches of cathedrals. The production gets its sweep principally from the three lead performers, who make room for their characters to change and grow -- in the process underscoring the wonder and aching sadness in this very human mythic tale.
Early in Act 1, for instance, here's Guenevere (an excellent Patricia Hurley), a headstrong, manipulative flirt who'd be right at home in the Dark Ages edition of "Gossip Girl." And here's Lancelot (Aaron Ramey), a vain, humorless prig whose idea of light conversation is a harangue about the chivalric code. Then they fall in love -- you can see it happening during a single drawn-out glance -- and each transforms. The coquette turns demure and anxious; Sir Stuffed Shirt, loosening vocally and physically, starts to radiate vulnerability and warmth.
As for Arthur (Todd Alan Johnson): He starts out as a slightly pathetic misfit of a monarch. In his first scene, when he springs onto a rock in a forest, arms outstretched, reminiscing about the time that magician Merlyn (Bill Largess) turned him into a hawk, he looks woefully earthbound. But the king alchemizes into, well, a wise, authoritative misfit -- a figure whose stoic gazes and postures can't quite conceal his inner anguish. Even as Arthur's realm crumbles, he changes: After an inspiring battlefield encounter with little Tom of Warwick (a fine James Chatham at the reviewed performance; William Goniprow alternates in the role), the despairing king becomes a triumphant one. You can hear the metamorphosis in his ringing final lines.
Fortunately, this "Camelot" is no mere homily about medieval self-actualization. Hurley, Ramey, Johnson and their cast mates acquit themselves admirably by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's transportingly wistful and witty songs. (Here or there, a note may sound hesitant, but that's quibbling.) In particular, Hurley has a voice whose piercing grace, especially at higher pitches, might give Excalibur a run for its money. Music director, arranger and conductor Christopher Youstra coaxes a reasonably lush sound from the six-person orchestra (he's the pianist).
Highlights of this nicely paced and resonant production include Largess's tottering King Pellinore and Evan Casey's delectably malicious Mordred. The confrontations between Arthur and Mordred paint an eloquent picture of idealism at loggerheads with human willfulness and frailty.
Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe. Direction and choreography by Stephen Nachamie; lighting design, Charlie Morrison; sound, Jarett Pisani. About 2 1/2 hours.