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Theater review: 'Camelot' at Pasadena Playhouse

January 17, 2010 |  4:15 am

Camelot 1
Poor little rich “Camelot.” Ever since its 1960 Broadway debut, the show has had to soothe its bruised self-esteem: It is regularly roughed up by critics, but comforted by the salve of its colossal box-office receipts.
Born in the shadow of another Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe blockbuster, “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot” now spends its middle years eclipsed by that far cheekier King Arthur and the Round Table musical, “Spamalot.”

A commercial juggernaut despite its perennial second-class status, “Camelot” has always had a sure-fire weapon in Loewe’s majestic score. Lerner’s lyrics have their clever moments as well (“In short, there’s simply not/A more congenial spot/For happ’ly-ever-aftering Than Here/In Camelot”). And the harmonious treasures of the original cast album you or your parents probably have tucked away in some attic box are the chief pleasure of David Lee’s new trimmed-down production, which opened Friday at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Camelot ii A sumptuous orchestra, led by musical director Christy Crowl, envelopes the audience in beguiling melodies that define timeless. If the work were a concert—which is one way around Lerner’s problematic book—it would be an unmitigated delight. But, unfortunately, there’s a lot of trudging through the castle grounds required of us.

Lee tries to alleviate the tedium by pruning the tale of Arthur and Guenevere’s marriage, a love story that goes sour when the conceited hunk Lancelot arrives wanting to become one of Arthur’s knights and ends up igniting adulterous sparks in an initially reluctant queen. Though the saga is served up with a genial simplicity, the result is not as winning as Lee’s 2007 revival of “Can-Can” at Pasadena Playhouse, another musty show that cried out for a brisk airing.

Lacking the star power of the original Broadway “Camelot” (never again will a triumvirate as Olympian as Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet share a stage in medieval finery), this Pasadena Playhouse production places a premium on singing. The acting is broad and the characterizations of the leads not especially sharp. But all the performers in this whittled-down eight-person ensemble succeed in making figures from the old legend perky and accessible.

Shannon Stoeke’s Arthur isn’t overburdened with stature and charisma. His main quality is a kindly vulnerability, which maintains our sympathy if not our excitement. As the central figure of the musical, he’s a bit wan, but he brings an amiable twinkle to such spry numbers as “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?” and “How to Handle a Woman.”

Shannon Warne hits all her marks as Guenevere. She pouts, flirts, throws tantrums and succumbs to temptation right on cue. It’s a punchy if not the most subtle performance. Her direct approach serves the songs better. She turns in a moving rendition of “I Loved You Once in Silence” and adds luster to all of her duets.

Doug Carpenter, who plays Lancelot, has a superb voice that more than makes up for his occasionally wooden acting. His role is notoriously challenging: Lancelot is an egoist who mustn’t be a complete turnoff. “C’est Moi,” his paean to his own marvelousness, is delivered with factual humility. When he croons “If Ever I Would Leave You,” the audience melts with the speed of butter in a hot skillet—evidence that Carpenter ultimately pulls off the ticklish balance between self-parody and sincerity.

The principals have some trouble with the abrupt shifts in tone. Lerner telescoped T.H. White’s sprawling Arthurian novel “The Once and Future King” as best he could for the stage. The playbill informs us that the first out-of-town tryout for “Camelot” let out at 12:30 a.m. Lerner kept cutting, and Lee takes his edits one step further. But the concision can seem like choppiness. My suggestion would be to throw out the book (which has been triaged by Lee from several Lerner versions) and just do the songs. The material may be eternal, but in this era of “Spamalot” the humor seems muted and the plot more of a slog than an adventure.
The irony, of course, is that the love triangle situation is treated without sentimentality—a striking development for a musical that foreshadows the anti-romantic view of Stephen Sondheim. But this starkness of theme stumbles to find an organic theatrical form.

Lee’s pared down treatment strips the musical of the pomp that famously marked Moss Hart’s original staging. His revival seeks the essence of “Camelot.” With Tom Buderwitz’s minimal sets, Maggie Morgan’s mix-and-match costumes and Mark Esposito’s undemanding choreography, the production fits our recessionary quagmire—Lerner and Loewe are put on a tight budget.

But the musical needs more than savings in time and cost. It needs a rewrite. As soon as Arthur’s illegitimate and malignant son, Mordred (Will Bradley), shows up, the musical devolves into mechanical contrivance.

Less is often more, but it’s no panacea. Lee demonstrates that “Camelot” doesn’t need the usual froufrou. But a bare-bones approach can throw into relief fundamental flaws.

--Charles McNulty

Follow me on Twitter @ CharlesMcNulty

“Camelot,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Drive, Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 
4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.  (Call for exceptions.) Ends Feb. 7. $48-$95. (626) 356-7529 or Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photos: Shannon Stoeke (middle), Doug Carpenter (left),Shannon Warne (right). Bottom: Carpenter and Warne.  Credit: Axel Koester / For The Times