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Theater Review: Fresh Take Makes ‘Camelot’ Shine Again

Camelot018In the grand setting of Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall that one brief shining moment glows again with a Camelot that’s about story and not star power of more than one stripe.

T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” provided an excellent source for Alan Jay Lerner’s book, his lyrics and Frederick Loewe’s score in a 1960 Broadway musical that featured Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guenevere and Robert Goulet as Lancelot.

Camelot4That show, which followed Lerner and Loewe’s superior My Fair Lady effort, seemed inextricably tied to its era when a recently widowed Jacqueline Kennedy told writer Theodore White (no relation to T.H.) that she and President Kennedy loved to listen to the title song before going to bed at night. She said JFK was especially fond of the conclusion written by Lerner, a classmate of his at Harvard: “Don’t let it be forgot/that once there was a spot/for one brief shining moment/that was known as Camelot.”

That tie to the Kennedy Administration, and subsequent revivals and tours with (among many others) Burton, Richard Harris (star of the 1967 film version), Goulet (who played Arthur in later years), Rock Hudson and even La Bamba star Lou Diamond Phillips – he came to Nashville with a production in 2008 – made this entertaining show feel more like a museum exhibition from the mid-Twentieth Century golden age of musicals.

Camelot7Now Director Michael McFadden and his colleagues have rescued Camelot from the archives and made it shimmer again as a story. Among welcome changes to make this somewhat stilted musical hum along: Songs like “You Can Take Me to the Fair” and “I Loved You Once in Silence” that were enjoyable reinforcements of plot points but nevertheless unnecessary have been jettisoned, and a number that could use trimming like “Fie On Goodness” has been judiciously cut.

Most importantly, the love triangle between the three leads is now much more believable. I remember watching Harris and Goulet as they struggled to make their Arthurs seem less like fathers and more like husbands to the women playing opposite them as Guenevere. In this tour the dashing Adam Grabau is (among the other fine qualities he displays as Arthur) a very believable lover opposite the beautiful Mary McNulty; add the handsome Tim Rogan and you have a triangle where love and betrayal mix powerfully and poignantly.

Camelot8All have wonderful voices and handle their signature songs well. Grabau gets the proceedings off to a witty start in word and gesture with his rendition of “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight” and McNulty nails her character’s initial trepidation in “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood.” Rogan’s oh-so-earnest “C’est Moi” is the treat it should be and his sensitive take on “If Ever I Would Leave You” is really lovely; Grabau delivers “How to Handle a Woman” with the gentle yearning it requires.

Kasidy Devlin (complete with a high-pitched laugh that’s appropriately reminiscent of a hyena) is a terrific Mordred – I listened for years to my grandparents’ copy of the original cast album and his reading of “The Seven Deadly Virtues” is just as delicious as hearing Roddy McDowell’s take on that song years ago. Devlin’s contributions to “Fie on Goodness” and other moments are also very entertaining. Kudos go to Mark Poppleton as well for his wonderful doubling as Merlyn and King Pellinore.

Camelot3The excellent ensemble includes three local actors playing Tom of Warwick in the final scene – I had the pleasure Wednesday of watching a very good performance by fourteen-year-old Bryton Cole, an eighth grader at Mt. Juliet Middle School. Henry Hawes (a seventh grader at East Nashville Magnet Middle School) and Charlie Webb (an eighth grader at Abintra Montessori) are alternating with Cole in the part during the tour’s Nashville run.

Last but certainly not least are the musicians led by conductor/keyboardist Marshall KeatingJeffrey Snider on percussion, Alexander Domschot on guitar and lute, Eric Eaton on cello and Michel Gohler on reed. Their exquisite playing – and intriguing additional orchestrations by Musical Supervisor Steven M. Bishop – provide plenty of verve for the score.

Camelot1This very handsome production also benefits from Kevin Depinet’s adroit mix of traditional and modern scenic design elements, Mike Baldassari’s sublime lighting, Craig Cassidy‘s pure sound design and Paul Tazewell’s first-rate costumes. Those contributions and the others mentioned earlier have reclaimed Camelot from history, and that’s as it should be – theater is a living thing and not a relic of the past.

Tennessee Performing Arts Center presents Camelot as part of its HCA/TriStar Broadway at TPAC Series through Sunday. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Today; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday in Andrew Jackson Hall (505 Deaderick St.) To buy tickets (starting at $27.50) online click here, call (615) 782-4040 or visit TPAC’s box office. For more information on the show visit CamelotTour.com.

*Photos by Scott Suchman courtesy the Camelot Tour and Phoenix Entertainment.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).