Similar to Shakespeare, the musical Camelot by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, offers ample opportunities for creative interpretation. Burning Coal’s production fleshes out the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable with some fine performances, a contemporary music arrangement, and an attempt to meld past and present.
The story is familiar. It’s a tragic tale of a ruler foiled by the very systems he believes will create a peaceful world. Yet King Arthur’s attempts at change are ultimately undone by the most basic and raw of all human emotions, love.
Director Jerome Davis simplifies the familiar elements of Camelot while subtly updating it to suggest a modern relevance. Greg Osbeck’s stage design is minimalistic with the circular stage serving as a reminder of the Round Table. Four ladders placed around the wooden platform provide perches for actors to observe the proceedings below. Stacey Herrison’s costumes seamlessly blend suggestions of royalty with contemporary pieces. The musical accompaniment has been reduced to three instruments: keyboard, drums, and electric guitar. Under the able guidance of Mo Ortbal, the arrangements in this production sound more modern than that of a classic Lerner and Loewe musical and include pop as well as blues and jazzy notes. Christopher Popowich’s subtle lighting accents the scenes appropriately.
But what stands out most in this version of Camelot are the individual performances. Galen Murphy-Hoffman brings a physicality to his role as King Arthur that not only evokes the king’s boyish side but also presents the reflective nature of a man wrestling between duty and desire, right and wrong. He has a captivating presence on stage, although it never seems to completely seduce his queen.
Natalie Reder’s Guenevere delivers vocally, yet her independent nature comes off almost too icy, dampening her unbridled passion that supposedly fuels her sides of the love triangle with Arthur and Lancelot. Her dispassionate demeanor becomes all the more noticeable when Tyler Graeper’s charismatic Lancelot suavely saunters onto the stage and takes it over with all his tall, dark, handsomeness. This Lancelot’s cajolery over Arthur feels much more credible than his seduction of Guenevere, which seems somewhat one-sided.
Julie Oliver’s Merlyn effectively and comically captures the harried frustration of a wizard desperately trying to teach Arthur. Alec Donaldson also offers up a humorous but stately portrayal of Pellinore, Arthur’s friend. AC Donohue’s over-the-top portrayal of the vampy witch Morgan Le Fay is truly spellbinding, while Shawn Morgendlander plays the evil Mordred with great malevolence. Finally, Lee Jean, Jr. displays his wide-ranging talent serving as Lancelot’s lively squire advancing parts of the story with his honey-smooth voice.
For all the marvelous casting, and innovative melding of the past with the present, the web of interaction between the characters needed just a bit more of Merlyn’s magic.