Review: Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ “Camelot”

“The best thing for being sad…is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love…There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it.”

The character Merlyn delivers this monologue in T.H. White’s classic fantasy novel The Once and Future King. It’s not usually a part of Camelot, Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical adaptation of the work, but it is a welcome addition in Michael Brindisi’s staging of the show now playing at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. It nicely bookends the evening and conveys the theme of this particular production.

In his Director’s Note in the program Brindisi states his intention to focus on the romantic aspects of the story for this outing (the fourth in Chanhassen’s history, but the first seen by me). This is evident in everything about the production; from Rich Hamson’s lush costumes to Nayna Ramey’s beautiful scenery and Sue Ellen Berger’s evocative lighting design. A popular approach in contemporary reinventions of classic musicals is to focus on the darker, grittier aspects of the story and in the recent past Camelot has been given this treatment. It’s refreshing to see a production that embraces the romantic, lighter fantasy aspects of the story and one unafraid to yearn for that “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

The well-known story revolves around the legendary medieval love triangle of King Arthur (Keith Rice), Queen Guenevere (Helen Anker) and Sir Lancelot (Zach Keenan Kacey) that brings down the democratic utopia of Camelot. Arthur’s wicked and illegitimate son Mordred (Tony Vierling) makes an appearance as usual, but his part is purposefully given much less significance in order to draw a sharper focus on the ill-fated love story that destroys the kingdom and Arthur’s dreams of peace.

Keith Rice as Arthur (Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp)

As the show progresses Rice’s Arthur grows in maturity with it. Even if at the start of the show Rice is a bit too much of a prankster he satisfyingly morphs into the wise and world-weary Arthur at its conclusion. Alan Jay Lerner’s book is often derided for its wordy dialogue, but it was wonderful to see the entire cast, Rice especially, focusing so much on the words Arthur speaks and the ideas he develops and believes in. This classic show is not as creaky as its unwarranted reputation deems it to be.

The regular actor playing Lancelot, Aleks Knezevich, was out for the performance I saw, and taking his place was Zach Keenan Kacey. If not for the replacement notice in the program I wouldn’t have guessed that Kacey was an understudy. It’s easy to make Lerner’s version of Lancelot into a caricature, the braggadocio of his introductory number “C’est Moi” inviting this portrayal. Kacey wisely resists this; his Lancelot is a sensitive and introspective young knight, and his lilting tenor provides a delicate and unique delivery to the show’s most famous ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You.”

Although convivial with both, a bit more chemistry between Anker’s Guenevere and her leading men would be welcome. She has a nice, warm moment with Rice’s Arthur during “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” but the drama needs more – it should be evidently clear that her genuine love for these two men is tearing her apart. The stakes are much less high when this passion is nonexistent.

It is Brindisi’s approach to the role of Merlyn (played by David Anthony Brinkley) that really makes this Camelot what it is. In most productions Merlyn is a throwaway character, one who provides a grand presence in the first scene but once bewitched by a nymph named Nimue disappears for the rest of the show, leaving Arthur to remember his wise words and futilely call upon the wizard when he needs assistance. Giving Merlyn the first monologue at the top of the show, as noted above, provides a much stronger foundation for his integrality to the plot. In the second act during one of Arthur’s darkest moments he hears Merlyn speak these same words and they provide a much-needed lesson, one that Arthur couldn’t have appreciated as much in his youth when Merlyn first spoke them to him.

Tamara Kangas Erickson’s choreography likewise bridges gaps in the narrative to help portray the musical’s thematic vision. Her artistic choice to represent Nimue with not just one, but four graceful dancers during the song “Follow Me” is an inspired one, and again provides unity to the later scene in Act II by bringing back one of these dancers when Arthur reminisces about Merlyn in the forest. The dancers representing horses in the Act I jousting scene are perhaps not quite as effective as their Nimue counterparts, but do serve their purpose in telling that part of the story.

It’s a shame that two wonderful songs featured in the show on its Broadway opening – “Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness” are not included in this production. This is not unusual – they were both cut halfway through the show’s original Broadway run to tighten up the running time. The omission of “Fie on Goodness,” however regretful, makes sense with Brindisi’s wish to focus on the love triangle bringing about Camelot’s doom. “Take Me to the Fair,” however, provides necessary characterization for Guenevere as well as an important development in her future love affair with Lancelot. It was reinstated for the film version and really should be for all subsequent stage productions.

As Camelot nears its sad but hope-filled concluding scene it is evident just how timely the show has once again become. In a current political climate of anger, hate and intolerance a Utopian vision of peace, acceptance and inclusivity is something the world needs right now. Perhaps it’s only a pipe dream, but one also possessed by the late John F. Kennedy, who cited Camelot as his favorite musical, forever correlating the title song of the show to his presidential legacy. It’s sad and terrifying that recent and current political leaders have gone the opposite route, promoting endless war, hate and violence – To paraphrase a line of Arthur’s near the end of the show – are we really back where we began? With Camelot Michael Brindisi makes the case for there always being a glimmer of hope in the future, even if that glimmer is “less than a drop in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea,” for some of those drops do sparkle. They do.

5 out of 5 stars

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