Chicago Theater Review: CAMELOT (Light Opera Works in Evanston)

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by Dan Zeff on June 4, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

THE LIBRETTO NEVER REALLY WORKS,
BUT THIS PRODUCTION SURE DOES

Camelot is a good musical that should be better. After all, it was composed by the team of Lerner and Loewe, of My Fair Lady immortality. And it takes as its subject one of the great romantic legends in Western culture, the reign of King Arthur and his creation of the Knights of the Round Table. The show eventually centers on the tragic love affair between Sir Lancelot and Arthur’s Queen Guenevere that destroyed the Round Table and all its lofty ideals of chivalry and honor.

The show does profit from a tuneful score, lots of opportunities for lush pageantry, and some humor. But Alan Jay Lerner’s book never really finds its footing and the story careens to a rushed conclusion; his libretto jams the show’s climax into a blur of frantic action in the final few minutes, as if he realized the show was running long and needed to wrap up the narrative, even at the cost of cramming the finale down the audience’s throat. Still, the musical has endured for half a century on both its romance and listenable score.

The Light Opera Works is reviving Camelot in another of its lamentably brief runs (only seven performances) and gives the vehicle a game try. The company can’t overcome problems embedded in the original. No production can. But it maximizes the virtues of the show, which are considerable, thanks to a strong cast, solid direction by Rudy Hogenmiller, and a trio of creative designers. The revival runs a full three hours, most of the playing time highly entertaining.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Camelot at Light Opera WorksThe heart of the revival is Nick Sandys as King Arthur. Sandys is one of Chicagoland theater’s best actors and he’s a decent enough singer to get through the role – Arthur does not call for a great voice, any more than Professor Henry Higgins does (there are plenty of other performers who provide first class singing). Sandys makes Arthur a strong and convincing character, and that’s sufficient to elevate the production into a success.

Sandys starts off as King Arthur-lite, a breezy young man, insecure in his responsibilities as king and very nervous about marrying Guenevere, a young princess he’s never met. The first act gets by on comedy and charm as Arthur and Guenevere meet, circle each other warily, and finally turn into a happily married couple…for a time. The story picks up in weight with the appearance of Sir Lancelot, a dashing knight who oozes bravado. Guenevere (Jennie Sophia) and Lancelot (William Travis Taylor) spar in their early meetings but inevitably they fall in love, reluctantly but irreversibly and that devastates Arthur and ultimately destroys the Round Table.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Camelot at Light Opera Works

Sandys carries the burden of the story throughout, credibly evolving from a skittish young monarch to a ruler of intelligence and command who is faced with the agony of sanctioning Guenevere’s death for her betrayal. The villain of the show is Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son (conceived while the young Arthur was under enchantment). Mordred is a malignant force but he exudes a certain fascination with his self-awareness as a cowardly and sinister disruptor of Arthur’s court. Mordred doesn’t appear until the second act and then only for a few scenes, but the story could use more of his energy and wry wit, especially as performed by the excellent Patrick Tierney.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Camelot at Light Opera Works

The Light Opera Works production is clean and uncluttered. There is a certainly amount of spectacle, but the Cahn Auditorium stage can’t accommodate Broadway level visual splendor. Still, Adam Veness (scenic design), Jeff Henry (costume design), and Andrew Meyers (lighting designing) have united to create a vivid and colorful backdrop to the action, filled with a vast wardrobe of period gowns and battle armor, medieval arches, and images of famous medieval tapestries. Toward the end of the production the show really takes on an opulent look that does great credit to the design team. Todd Rhoades’s choreography emphasizes lots of gamboling in the greensward by lords and ladies of the court and enchantress Morgan LeFey’s nymphs at her invisible castle.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Camelot at Light Opera Works

Jenny Sophia is an attractive Guenevere and she has a strong trained voice. William Travis Taylor is an operatic performer who gives Lancelot real emotional dignity after the character’s early pompous appearances. One might quibble that his Lancelot looks older than Sandys’s Arthur, which jars the mentor/student element in their relationship but Taylor’s singing is worth the apparent disparity in ages. There is also good complementary work by Skip Lundby as the silly-ass knight Sir Pellinore, Michael Harnichar briefly but effectively as the magician Merlin, and Patrice Egleston as Morgan LeFey.

The score is a sheaf of familiar numbers—from the comic “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight,” “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” and “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” to the romantic “How to Handle a Woman,” “If Ever I Would Leave You” (the show’s biggest hit), and “Before I Gaze at You Again.” As usual in a Light Operas Works production, the music is enhanced by the sumptuous professional accompaniment provided by a large pit orchestra, Roger L. Bingaman directing.

photos by Chris Ocken; poster by Rich Foreman

Camelot
Light Opera Works
Cahn Auditorium in Evanston
ends on June 10, 2012
for tickets, call 847 920 5360 or visit Music Theater Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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