Monday, October 10, 2016

A Comedic Camelot

Not Might is Right; but Might FOR Right. Let's be civilized, shall we? 

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Knights seem to be having a moment these days.

Whether it's Game of Thrones, the Tudors, anything Tolkein based, or even in a weird way Star Wars, stories about knights, chivalry and mystical adventures seem to be more popular than ever.

This is good news for Camelot, the latest offering from the Chanhassen Dinner Theater. Although the musical has been around for decades, it's gotten a slight facelift and fits well into our current cultural context.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Camelot is based on the terrific book The Once and Future King by T.H. White (what was it about fantasy fiction written in the early to mid-twentieth century that is just so enduring?) and tells the story of King Arthur, from his early days as king developing the new code of chivalry and knights of the round table, to the battle to save it from itself later on. It covers quite a wide range of ground in Arthur's back story but focuses mainly on the blooming (and devastating) relationship that develops between Guenevere and Lancelot, eventually ripping the kingdom apart.

I will preface this review by saying that although I love the general fable of King Arthur, this has never been one of my favorite musicals. In the past I've found it something of a dinosaur, a little cobwebby and boring. That's not the actors' fault - just wasn't ever at the top of my list.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
That said, I was impressed by this production and I think they've done a great job of breathing life into the story. It's hard when you're used to modern or Broadway musicals with all of their pizzazz and flashy elements to remember that musicals originated in a much quieter form, and that there is still value in those older books. The thing that struck me most watching this production of Camelot was just how funny it is (I don't remember that from former productions at all). The story itself ends rather sadly, but there are plenty of lighthearted moments, which are heightened by the cast's inability to take themselves too seriously (in a good way). These actors know they're in a caricature of Camelot, but they love it anyway - and that sells the whole show.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
There are some supremely talented cast members who assist with this perception as well, beginning with Helen Anker as Guenevere. Anker was last seen in the Twin Cities in a magnificent turn as Eliza Doolittle at the Guthrie, and she really nails it here. Guenevere can seem like a really pathetic character, but Anker gives her a healthy dose of spunk and a perfect diction to her songs. She's somewhere between the look of Clara Bow, the voice of Julie Andrews and the temperament of Amy Adams. It's a winning mix, and she does a great job.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
David Anthony Brinkley opens the show as Merlyn, and all I can say is: I wish we had more of him. It really sets the tone of a mystical fairy tale, and I missed that influence the second it was gone. Brinkley shows up later as Pellinore, where he has some comedic touches - but I wish it had been Merlyn all the way. Aleks Knezevich plays Lancelot, and he suits the role perfectly. He definitely carries over the overbearing confidence he demonstrated as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, but adds a more selfless spirit this time that adds complexity to Lancelot's spirit. It surprised me but really works, and it helps that Knezevich's voice is glorious. I hope we find a show he can lead in coming productions, because he'd joyfully carry one through. Keith Rice rounds out the anchored cast as King Arthur. Ever the steadfast Chanhassen regular, I thought he was an odd choice initially and a little old for the part. But Rice handles the aging Arthur beautifully, showing the wisdom Arthur gains while retaining his youthful energy, and it worked for me somehow. I wish Rice sang a little more than spoke his songs, but overall he really transfers the regal aspect of Arthur and anchors the show in Camelot itself.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
As always the sets and costumes are gorgeous. The sets include a flickering magical forest (my favorite) and some rich yet minimalist castle pieces, replete with tapestry, gilded furniture and rich coloring. They are simple but convey the sense of the show well. Almost everyone in this show has splendid costumes, but Guenevere's gowns are particularly lovely. The lighting mix is soft and comfy, and the sound mix is one of the best I've heard. Everyone's voice is clearly articulated without being overwhelmingly loud and you can truly understand every word. It really helps the show along and I hope more productions and theaters take note - no one wants to be blasted out of their chairs during a show!!
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
My overall verdict for Camelot? Surprisingly engaging. It's not the best thing I've seen, but it's thoroughly satisfying and leaves you with a smile. There are some terrific cast members and an evening at the Chanhassen is always a good time. One warning: there are some action scenes but this is NOT "The Battle of the Bastards" - if you're going to see a lot of sword smashing, it won't be found here. Don't let that discourage you though, because what this Camelot lacks in swashbuckling it makes up for with a lot of heart.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Camelot also visits us at a particularly good time. King Arthur's determination to create a more civilized society, one that values not "Might is Right" but "Might FOR Right," doing good without reward but for the sake of good itself, is more necessary now than ever. It's a little old-fashioned but comforting to hear, and I found it quite the balm on my political concerns. Camelot runs through February 2017; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.