Less armor, more sex. That's the news from New York-based director Gabriel Barre's savvy reworking of Lerner and Loewe's musical Camelot at Casa Mañana. No worries, though: unlike some "modern" updates, there's nothing here that feels contrived or pasted on. Barre (off-Broadway's The Wild Party, world premiere of Memphis) lets Camelot sparkle, with plenty of ladies dancing and lords a-leaping. But he also mines a deeper, darker vein in the story that's been there all along.
Courtship and betrayal, love and lust, peace and war: this always was an edgier tale than its lush melodies might let us remember. Lerner and Loewe's 1960 hit was true to its primary source, T.H. White's thoroughly modern retelling of the King Arthur legends in The Once and Future King. White's book was long on comic charm, but also lifted an ironic eyebrow at the dark doings in the world of that nice Pendragon couple, Arthur (Bradley Dean) and Guenevere (Nili Bassman), and their sworn friend Lancelot du Lac (Josh Tower).
This mother of all love triangles is a showcase of fabulous stage voices, not the least of them Tower's (Broadway's The Lion King and Ragtime), who introduces himself as the "incredibly pure" Lancelot with a thrilling "C'est Moi." Bassman (Broadway's Chicago, Curtains, Never Gonna Dance) has a lovely old-school voice, and a dancing grace to her movements (aided by Tammy Spencer's luscious costumes) that underscores Guenevere's ability to charm the boys out of the trees.
As Arthur, Dean (A Little Night Music with Bernadette Peters, Evita with Ricky Martin) is an equally fine vocal performer and the actor this role needs to bring off the character's contradictions. Inside this powerful king is an uncertain lover, the wizard Merlyn's awkward apprentice, and an ordinary guy (he knows he isn't "a thinker"—Merlyn keeps telling him!) whose love for Guenevere makes him want to be a better king. Isn't there something we can do with all this power we have, he wonders—something better than just "whacking" and war? Dean delivers in every way, most movingly in the great, idealistic speeches that close each of the two acts. And he and Bassman have a warmth together that frankly makes you wonder just what she sees in That French Guy.
David Coffee is comical and touching as road-weary King Pellinore, who gives up his quest for a comfy pillow at Camelot. Coffee's "bit with a dog" shouldn't really be funny, but it is; he's that good. As the bitter Mordred, Keith Merrill is terrifically attractive (oh, those bad boys) in a Blackadder's-super-handsome-brother mode, and is another great singer. He is, quite literally, the destroyer lurking just off-stage, itching to do a job on Camelot's "happily ever aftering." Alyssa Robbins is an alluringly prancing unicorn, and Christopher J. Deaton's Sir Dinadan is a standout among a talented group of knights, ladies and ensemble players.
One of the greatest pleasures of this production is its clear commitment to letting the voices and lyrics come first. The small but lively orchestra under Broadway veteran Edward G. Robinson's astute music direction accompanies beautifully, never overpowering the singers. Director Barre (who choreographs ably along with associate Jennifer Paulson Lee) stages the action in a series of fast-flowing scenes that use Casa Mañana's generous spaces. Characters run the aisles, appear out of trees and disappear into the earth. An elevated space behind the main stage becomes a window on other events of the past and present. The deep stage comes into play for a combat scene (only described in the original production) between Arthur's knights and new-guy Lancelot that plays out, intensely and up-close, with swords and staffs. And resident lighting designer Samuel Rushen adds a subtly beautiful Medieval quality to many scenes by framing small groups of characters in cones of descending light.
Barre's best new idea may sound small, but it plays big. He creates a charming meta-theatrical frame for the story with young actor Clayton Slee, who plays a series of roles. He is the boy Tom of Warwick, who will carry Arthur's idea of using "might for right" into the future. He is the wizard Merlyn, cursed to live life from future into the past, becoming younger each day—a boy who remembers too much, trying desperately to tell Arthur everything he'll need to know. And he is our guide into the world of the play: standing front and center at the beginning of each act, waving a hand to bring down the lights, and bowing to the audience with a conspiratorial smile. It's an effective conceit.
Camelot is forever linked to the Kennedy years: though the musical was written before JFK was elected, Jacqueline Kennedy believed its ideas came alive "for one brief shining moment" in her husband's desire to avoid war and find ways to use America's strength in positive ways. (What would Arthur have thought of a "Peace Corps"?) Whether you buy that connection, it's certainly true that in Camelot, it's easy to hear the oncoming roar of the Sixties: in the idealism of Arthur's plans for the Round Table, in seeing a world without borders, in wanting to give peace a chance. These are, of course, ideas still playing out in our own time—but a case could be made that Casa is providing the first of many tributes to come in this, the 50th anniversary of the events of 1963.
This is director Barre's fourth Casa production (most recent was Sweeney Todd), and it's a Broadway-quality effort that lets everyone shine. More, please!