Review: ‘Camelot’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company

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Last month marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. As threats to his life mounted, King seemed resigned to his fate.

“I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

The next day, he was assassinated.

Like Moses, the biblical prophet he consciously echoed in his final speech, King never made it to the Promised Land.

Ken Clark as King Arthur in Camelot, now playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Ken Clark as King Arthur in Camelot, now playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.

As I watched the opening of Camelot (book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe) at the Shakespeare Theatre Company last night, I kept thinking of King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech and wondering: Which is the crueler fate for a leader, to glimpse the Promised Land and never reach it, or to find paradise, as Britain’s legendary King Arthur did, and lose it?

These are the sorts of questions that linger after you see a classic American musical (re)interpreted by Alan Paul, who brought us 2015’s Helen Hayes Award-winning Man of La Mancha.

The director has a gift for mining the books of Broadway musicals for their political subtexts and bringing these implications to the surface where they enrich and enlarge our experience.

At first glance, Paul tells us in a director’s note in the program, he saw in Camelot little more than pageantry and pretty songs. But, as he observes, the Arthur legend—especially in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which is Lerner and Loewe’s source material—is about an enlightened, benevolent leader and the heavy cost of leading and loving one’s fellow man and woman.

In Alan Paul’s be-knighted hands, Camelot at STC is a musical about the romance of politics and the politics of romance. In this elegant and economical new production at Sidney Harman Hall (the original production was nearly three hours and has been trimmed here), director Paul aims his bow at the audience’s head and its heart — and finds both of his marks.

Ken Clark (King Arthur) and Alexandra Silber (Guenevere) are two of the smartest actors to play these roles, and they are exciting to watch as they conceive of a new order of chivalry — one in which the accused have rights, commoners (“the folk not noblessely obliged”) can seek redress in courts of law, and might is used for right.

You can see the wheels turning in their heads as they imagine the Knights of the Round Table and a higher purpose for King Arthur and Britain. When this leader promises to drain the swamp, he means it.

Clark and Silber are serviceable singers, though Silber’s soprano is shaky at times, and she experienced pitch problems at the end of her Act II duet (“What Do the Simple Folk Do?”).

Coming to the musical rescue is Nick Fitzer, whose Lancelot du Lac brings pizzazz and a powerful baritone across the Channel from France. Just as occurred in 1960 when Robert Goulet originated the role on Broadway, Fitzer’s rendition of “If Ever I Would Leave You” brings down the house. This despite choreographer Michele Lynch’s dubious decision to put a league’s distance between Lance and Guenevere during this tender love song.

Scenic designer Walt Spangler’s bed of crimson rose petals redeems the bad blocking in this scene, and it’s a brilliant choice to have those petals remain on stage long after Lance and Jenny have consummated their forbidden passion. As they swirl together on stage, the rose petals resemble a pool of blood, a leaking wound that threatens to engulf Arthur’s castle and country and cannot be ignored.

Nick Fitzer as Lancelot and Alexandra Silber as Guenevere in Camelot, now playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Nick Fitzer as Lancelot and Alexandra Silber as Guenevere in Camelot, now playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Forcing Arthur to confront the reality of Lance and Jenny’s betrayal is his bastard son, Mordred, played by Patrick Vaill with a heavy Scottish brogue and the even heavier burden of having to speak truth to power. Vaill wisely plays Mordred not simply as Arthur’s rival but as his conscience.

When Arthur charges Mordred to bring him proof of his wife’s treasonous affair, this is the true test of Arthur’s leadership. As king, he could end the “Mordred probe” at any time, but for the sake of justice and an informed populace, he allows his special prosecutor to complete his work. He puts his faith in the law, and that is why history remembers Arthur, his Round Table and what it stood for.

Rounding out this cast are the Peabody Conservatory-trained Melissa Wimbish in an enchanting cameo as Nimue; STC stalwart Ted van Griethuysen, who brings gravitas to the role of Merlyn the magician; and Floyd King as King Pellinore, on hand with a jest or a jape just when we need to lighten the mood.

And the mood is increasingly dark. Ana Kuzmanic’s technicolor costumes —tangerine, daisy, candy apple green — evoke the liberated 1960s in Act I, particularly in the “The Lusty Month of May.” But watch as her palette gives way to deep purple and funeral black in Act II.

As the lights begin to go out on Arthur’s vision of Camelot, so too do they dim on Spangler’s stage. By the show’s finale, lighting designer Robert Wierzel renders the action in a soft glow, soft as candlelight, perhaps to remind us that Camelot never existed, or existed only in our dreams.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Camelot plays through July 8 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-547-1122, or go online.