It’s amazing the kind of things we let ourselves think we’re familiar with. So many movies, tv shows and theatrical performance has permeated our general pop culture that it’s easy to think, “Oh, I’ve seen that, right?” I am that way with a lot of movies. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen Citizen Kane or Casablanca all the way through, and those are among the greats. I should really get on that. But when the Shakespeare Theatre Company announced last year that they would be putting on Camelot, I had a similar reaction. “Oh,” I said to myself, “Didn’t we watch that in choir class one time before the holidays?” Well, if we did, I wasn’t paying much attention, because when we went to see it recently, everything felt new, which isn’t a bad thing.
Camelot is as the name implies, the story of King Arthur, and is based on the book “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White which came out in the late 50s. Everyone seems to have been inspired by that book, as the writers of the musical weren’t the only ones to use it. Most notably, this is the literary source of “The Sword in the Stone”, the short story turned Disney movie that was one of my least favorite to watch when I was growing up, but it was one of the few Disney movies we had on VHS, so I watched it a lot anyways. Needless to say, because I hadn’t actually seen the Camelot musical (at least in its entirety), having this basis for a time-travelling Merlin prepared me for what the show sprinkled throughout.
The story of the adult King Arthur fascinates me. And watching this production, Guinevere seems like a much more modern feminist lady. Perhaps the original dialogue is meant more to reflect simply a spirited young woman, but the independence displayed and co-ruling and development of ideas (including the Round Table) with Arthur makes her seem independent beyond what the time would have allowed. I also was intrigued by the trope of having Guinevere and Lancelot dislike each other at first before they come to love each other as much as they love Arthur. And all of this makes me sad because in modern society, while still frowned upon, the three of them could probably live pleasantly together (as long as they weren’t actually royalty).
But the music – I didn’t recognize any of the songs apart from the title song of “Camelot”, and that only because we sang it in my choir class all those years ago. Going into a musical completely unprepared was new for me, and I quite enjoyed it. Yes, the music felt decidedly 50s/60s in style and structure, but that’s to be expected when you’ve got one of the last shows to come out of the golden age of Broadway musicals.
The show itself was quite good as well. The three main characters of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot were all well-played and well-sung. If you don’t like opera singers, the actress playing Guinevere might not be for you, but I happened to think she was lovely. DC theater aficionados will be pleased to see both Ted van Griethuysen and Floyd King make appearances in the show. The only character/actor who bugged me was the young man playing Mordred. The part itself is one that is wrapped up in anger, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that the part and his songs felt more shouted than sung.
Additionally, while the staging was great with portions moving in and out from above and below (though we did get to witness one technical snafu when the rising stage didn’t rise for a full minute and a stage-hand had to come out to watch from above), I wasn’t a huge fan of the way the second act was decorated. There is a massive carpet of red leaves on the stage, and while I get that it’s a gorgeous visual for one particular scene which starts things off, I don’t necessarily get it as decoration for the rest of the show. Sure the leaves may serve as a visual cue that we are in the autumn of Camelot, and that things are about to go very bad, but seeing all the characters tromp through leaves that wouldn’t actually be there feels weird. Additionally, I’m sure that there are ways (with the curtain which was dropped to add them in the first place) where you could block things off from view in order to clean them all up. And perhaps you could still leave some of the leaves around the edges, or include branches of the red leaves as wall/vase decor in order to drive the point home?
My point being – it’s an enjoyable show. Especially if it’s not one that you’ve seen before. It is both decidedly retro, and shockingly modern at the same time. If you’re looking for something that has wonderful production values and easier to get tickets to than some other shows which are coming to DC, this would be it. A quality show with a good cast, and lovely costuming and set. And who knows – maybe you’ve seen part or all of the show in the past as well, and this will remind you of it in that same “Merlin moving through time” way that the show introduces.