'Camelot' at Olney Theatre Center

Aaron Ramey as Lancelot, Patricia Hurley as Guinevere and Todd Alan Johnson as Arthur in "Camelot" at Olney Theatre Center.
Aaron Ramey as Lancelot, Patricia Hurley as Guinevere and Todd Alan Johnson as Arthur in "Camelot" at Olney Theatre Center. (Weldon Brown/olney Theatre Center)
By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

Ah, is it good to be king?

That's a question King Arthur himself contemplates on a day off from the royal demands of "Camelot."

The legendary leader, in this instance, is leading man Todd Alan Johnson, and his dominion is the main stage at Olney Theatre Center, where the classic Lerner and Loewe musical opens Wednesday.

"I'm thrilled that this piece has a lot of legitimate themes in it," says the New York-based actor, 42, who is tackling the role for the first time. " . . . How to think about war and violence, how to come up with answers, how we try to avoid history repeating itself."

Not that the history of "Camelot" can avoid repetition, at least in presidential circles.

The cast recording of the 1960 show (with Richard Burton as Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guinevere and Robert Goulet as Lancelot) was a favorite of John F. Kennedy's. That led to the name Camelot (the place where, in Arthurian legend, the idealistic king held court) becoming pop-culture shorthand for the Kennedy White House. And when President Obama was heralded as Kennedyesque, the Camelot moniker made a comeback.

"The president is trying to do the right thing," Johnson says. "He's trying to do the most for those who have the least. That's a big part of what Arthur is trying to do."

The presidential parallel has also been on the mind of director-choreographer Stephen Nachamie.

"Arthur is creating the ideal of a new order," Nachamie says, by establishing the Knights of the Round Table, focusing on "might for right." "It's a lot like current politics."

"With every decision Obama makes," says the 37-year-old New Yorker, "there's a contingent saying, 'Is he going to live up to it? Is he going to fail?' Is there still hope that this kind of Camelot will exist?

"I'm hoping people who've seen 'Camelot' before will look at it anew," says Nachamie, much as he has -- both politically and creatively.

He has pushed for a design that is "less ivory-tower, less storybook-looking . . . not like a Renaissance fair." And he's not content to let famous tunes -- no matter how beautiful -- rest on their laurels.

"If Ever I Would Leave You," for example: "For years, that was Robert Goulet's song," Nachamie says of the ballad sung by Sir Lancelot, King Arthur's most trusted knight, to Queen Guinevere, who has become Lancelot's mistress. Now, "rather than having the baritone just stand there," a la Goulet, the director is trying to shine "a new light on the dramatic struggle."

Ultimately, says Nachamie, it's about making "Camelot" "less iconic and more human."

"These are very layered, vulnerable people," he says, with Arthur's conflict at center stage. "How do you compromise between being the man and the king? And what happens when you can't let one of them go?"

Camelot Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. http://www.olneytheatre.org. Wednesday through Jan. 3. $26-$49.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company