Thursday, February 04, 2010

STAGE: Camelot

I was raised on show tunes from a young age, and as a kid I can remember listening to my folks' reel-to-reel tapes, especially the great Lerner and Lowe musicals like Camelot and My Fair Lady. I'd never seen Camelot on the stage, and so when I heard that the Pasadena Playhouse was putting it up, I wanted to go see it. Then when I read that the Pasadena Playhouse -- beautiful historic theatre that has put up some truly great productions over the years -- was closing due to financial difficulties, I immediately went out to get tickets. That just added a whole layer of meaning to the experience, to see this play about the fateful demise of a wonderful ideal, as the very theatre was experiencing its own demise.

Not having seen any other productions of Camelot, I can't compare this one, but I found it utterly charming and moving. The set was simple and spare, a series of wooden poles and platforms, and the ensemble of eight players began the play in a self-conscious "we're about to tell you a story, so please indulge us with your imagination" manner (actually rather Shakespearean), and also a touch of self-deprecating humor -- "there was a majestic castle on a hill" as a picture of a castle is noisly unfurled and hung on one of the poles; "it was snowing" as an actress arches an eyebrow while tossing a handful of torn paper in the air. The self-conscious stuff added a nice laugh here and there, but was a light touch, and not overdone. The cast was terrific. Shannon Warne (Guinevere) reminded me of mezzo diva Jennifer Larmore, with a beautiful and powerful voice that glimmered like sunshine, and with a confident charm that commanded the stage. I think she could have got most every guy in the audience to joust against Lancelot for her! Shannon Stoeke (Arthur) did a marvelous job being a tentative idealistic boy-king in the beginning, maturing into a strong man with the conviction of his ideals even when it was torture for him to do so. Doug Carpenter brought a swaggering bearing and a rich deep baritone to realize the unself-consciously pompous Lancelot. The other three fun-loving knights and that deliciously wicked Mordred were all finely enacted too, rounding out a great ensemble. The director did a great job balancing the tone of the play, mostly light and charming with emotionally powerful moments. The climax at the end of Act I was particularly powerful, with Arthur making a desperate, passionate recommitment to his ideals, and then the breathtaking reveal of Lance and Jenny, naked in each other's arms. That was brilliant theatre. And of course I was totally charmed (as well as filled with warm nostalgic feeling) for the brilliant music and lyrics of Lerner and Lowe.

I was sad to see the show end, and sad to see the theatre close. I hope that they will be able to stage a comeback, and that the "(not so) brief shining moment" that was the Pasadena Playhouse will be the "once and future" stage.

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