By Amy Stumpfl
Based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the action still centers on the tragic love triangle involving an idealistic King Arthur, his queen Guinevere and the gallant Lancelot. And fans certainly will recognize familiar songs, such as “If Ever I Would Leave You,” “C’est Moi,” “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and, of course, the title song, “Camelot.” But David Lee’s streamlined adaptation (which opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2010) strips away much of the pageantry of the past, along with a number of supporting characters – including the mysterious Merlin and the loyal Pellinore. It’s an interesting choice, and one that pays off with focused, yet highly theatrical storytelling and a refreshingly crisp pace.
This reimagined version actually trims the cast down to just a handful of players – or “revelers” – who are eager to share the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. They deliver concise narration directly to the audience, but also provide a good bit of cheeky stagecraft – easily becoming the “tree” under which Guinevere prays to Saint Genevieve, or the “stone” from which a young Arthur pulls the mighty sword Excalibur. Director Philip Wm. McKinley (Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark; The Boy From Oz) makes the most of this fast-paced humor. But he also takes care not to rush the audience, drawing us in with some lovely stage portraits and allowing us to savor more poignant moments.
Steffanie Leigh (whose Broadway credits include Mary Poppins, Gigi and War Paint) is simply radiant as Guinevere, capturing all the flirty spirit of “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and “Then You May Take Me to the Fair.” But she also reveals her character’s genuine heartache in ballads such as “Before I Gaze at You Again” and “I Loved You Once in Silence.”
Brian Gligor offers a thoughtful performance as Arthur, giving us a reluctant king who is at once wise, uncertain and devastatingly human. Gligor occasionally seemed to struggle vocally at Saturday’s matinee, but I thoroughly enjoyed his take on “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight,” and his “How to Handle a Woman” is quite tender. And Bryce Dunn (currently a sophomore at Lipscomb University) is excellent as Lancelot, whether leaning into the pompous fun of “C’est Moi,” or serving up an emotional “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
These lead actors receive tremendous support from a seemingly tireless crew of revelers, who jump into various roles along the way. Curtis Reed, Easton J. Curtis and Dustin Davis (who stepped in for Darian Goulding at Saturday’s matinee) are especially impressive as the daring knights who challenge Lancelot to joust. Annie Huckaba is terrific as Squire Dap, and Alan Harrisohn Foeder is charming as young Tom of Warwick. And Abram Guice is a pure diabolical delight as Mordred, scheming against Arthur with “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and “Fie on Goodness.”
Andrew Cohen has fashioned a marvelously crumbling castle set, which ably supports the unfolding action, and Darren Levin’s evocative lighting enhances each scene. Neno Russell and Lauren Roark’s simple costumes feature plenty of medieval flourishes, but never let us lose sight of the merry revelers concept. Music Director Stephen Kummer leads a wonderful orchestra, and Everett Tarlton’s choreography adds polish, with “The Lusty Month of May” providing one of the performance’s most memorable moments.
This may not be the Camelot you’ve seen before. But with imaginative storytelling and vibrant performances, die-hard fans will no doubt find Studio Tenn’s staging quite congenial for “happily-ever-aftering.”
Camelot continues through May 15. Visit studiotenn.com for complete details.