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A CurtainUp  Berkshire ReviewCamelot

Once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot . . .
Don't let it be forgot
-- shortly after the assination of President John F. Kennedy (a Harvard classmate of Alan Jay Lerner) abruptly ended the vigorous, young administration associated with the hope represented by "the new Round Table which had no corners" his widow told an interviewer that her husband had particularly like these words from the title song.

A local girl, Maureen O'Flynn, who happens to be an internationally known opera diva and with the good looks and acting ability needed for the musical stage! A director, Eric Hill, with a bent for imaginative avant garde staging! An old-fashioned book musical, Camelot, with a romantic triangle, an uplifting political theme and plenty of heart-stirring songs you'll be humming long after the curtain descends!

Mix all these ingredients together and you've got an evening that gets the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Summer 2000 off to a fine start. Maureen O'Flynn is a charming Guenevere. Her vibrant soprano voice justifies director Hill's decision to give audiences a musical in which the sound you hear is the sound that comes out of the performers' mouths, without the hollowness that is the price of body mikes.

This Camelot is also not a Broadway style multi-set spectacle, with drop-dead accouterments like smoke and rising and rotating scenery. Instead Mr. Hill and set designer Rob Odorisio have created a fine, moody set that is dominated by a giant tree fashioned from rope and burlap, surrounded by a forest of steel poles and minimal details to suggest various castle locations. On occasion good use is also made of one of the aisles.

Mr. Hill has not abandoned the basic story of Arthur's quest for a kinder, more peaceful world via the Knights of the Round Table (a table representing a world without boundaries). Guenevere is still caught betwixt her quiet love for Arthur and her passion for the French knight Lancelot. And the wonderfully melodic hit songs are all there -- "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood", "Camelot", "If Ever I Should Leave You", "What Do the Simple Folk Do". But being an experimenter, Hill has compensated for the small stage's requirement for scaling down the spectacle with some clever and effective new wrinkles.

For starters, the character of young Tom of Warwick (Devin Adams) is merged with that of an ordinary young boy, his cap with the peak to the back, who is sitting in that central tree reading a giant book. Naturally, it's T. H. White's The Once and Future King which inspired the musical. This dual role as bearer of the Camelot tale and reader of the story as further spread by White lurks around the edges throughout the proceedings. And for an immediate comic bang, we have Merlyn literally bursting out of the tree (a spectacularly funny performance by Richard Easton, who later reemerges just as dazzlingly as Pellinore).

Despite these new directorial touches, the first act is slow going (an hour and a half long), but hang in. Hill has saved his most dynamic staging for "Guinevere" the big Act II battle scene. This is where his penchant for masks comes into play as several actors are transformed into horses. This is when the old Camelot is transformed into an exciting new Camelot

Besides the fortuitous casting of Maureen O'Flynn as Guinevere, and the always reliable Richard Easton as Merlyn and Pellinore, Mr. Hill has also enlisted Tom Story, a young actor who proved himself in tune with previous experimental works at the BTF's Unicorn Theatre, to play the wicked Mordred. As is true of Easton, Story brings electricity to his every scene. "The Seven Deadly Virtues", delivered with a deliciously malevolent streak, is a show stopper. Rachel Coloff's dark, sexy beauty and powerful voice make her an ideal Morgan Le Fay. She also acquits herself well as Nimue and Lady Anne. The accompaniment by the small band at the side of the stage is well suited to the chamber-musical approach.

That leaves the two leading men. Alas and alack, Ms. O'Flynn deserves a more charismatic pair of lovers to give the proper romantic glow to her musical stage debut.

Richard Poe is an endearing enough, sincere King Arthur but, he has as much sex appeal as Al Gore. While Richard Burton, the original Arthur, was hardly a singer, his songspeak had a magic of its own and his words were never drowned out by the musicians as Poe's were on several occasions (unlike O'Flynn and many of the other cast members, he would undoubtedly have done better with a mike). Thanks to Ms. O'Flynn's fine voice, the Arthur-Guenevere duet, "What Do the Simple Folks Do", proves strong enough to delight even though its success rests mostly with her.

Lewis Cleale, while less hampered by the lack of miking than Poe, is hardly the knight whose shining armor would set any maiden's heart aflutter. If you harbor fond memories of Burton And Robert Goulet, I suggest you take out the CD. ( the original cast recording is available through our book store)

For those unfamiliar with the plot, and as a memory jogger for the rest of you, this nutshell summary:

The story begins with the young King Arthur stumbling out of a tree and onto Guenevere, the girl who has been chosen to be his queen. The arranged marriage turns into a love match and some years later Arthur dreams up the idea of the Round Table and the idea of "Might for Right". All goes well until the predictions of Arthur's childhood mentor Merlyn materialize. The self-righteous French knight Lancelot du Lac pledges his allegiance to the king and also falls in love with the queen (and, yes, she with him). Thus Arthur's harmonious marriage as well as his peaceable kingdom are threatened by the ill intentions of his bastard son Mordred, who persuades his aunt the fairy Morgan le Fay to imprison Arthur for a night. Guinevere and Lancelot, left alone, give way to opportunity and Arthur sadly and reluctantly agrees that Guinevere must be burned at the stake (it's the law of the land!). Lancelot rescues her, but at the cost of several knightly lives. Battles instead of peace once again become a way of life but when Arthur and Lancelot meet on the battlefield they embrace. A young boy, Tom of Warwick, becomes the voice of hope who will spread the word about the glory that was Camelot.

Whew, that's a lot of conflict to work into a lot of songs. No wonder it takes almost three hours for all this romance, tragedy, hope, despair and renewed hope to unfold. However, it's worth sitting through the slow stretches to see how an old-fashioned musical can be given a new-fangled sensibility.

Postscript: As this postscript is being posted, the show has closed, but in the interest of accuracy, this addendm from the show's choreographer.

My name is Jonathan Cerullo and I most recently received the glowing review from your web site regarding the production of Camelot at the Berkshire Theater Festival. I was the choreographer for this production and I wanted to correct a key note in the review. The staging of the second act production number "Guenevere" was created not by Mr. Hill but by myself, I approached the piece from a very different angle and Mr. Hill certainly approved the ideas I initially laid out for him in regard to this number. This indeed was a collaborative effort but the concept and staging, the use of the masks, and my desire to make the three numbers I choreographed, Lusty, Joust and Guenevere different from any thing I had seen or done before [having done Camelot twice in the past].
Jonathan Stuart Cerullo

Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe
Based on The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Directed by Eric Hill
Original production directed and staged by Moss Hart
Cast: Richard Poe-King Arthur, Maureen O'FlynnGuenevere, Lewis Cleale-Lancelot, Richard Easton-Merlyn and Pellinore, Tom Story-Mordred, Rachel Coloff-Morgan LeFay, Nimue and Lady Anne, Devin Adams-Tom of Warwick and young boy, Erik Sorenson-Sir Dinadan, Robert Hunt-Sir Lionel, Jordan Gelber-Sir Sagramore and Squire Dap
Ensemble: Sara Avery, Craig Baldwin, Steve Boyer, Jennie Burkhard, Tara Franklin, John Rolle, Talia Thiesfield
Choreography: Jonathan Stuart Cerullo
Set Design: Rob Odorisio
Lighting Design: Dan Kotlowitz
Costume Design: Marion Williams
Musical Arrangements: Andrew Gerle
Orchestra: Deborah Lapidus-conductor/piano, Fred Cohen-2nd reed, Andrew Gerle-keyboard, Peter Grimaldi-trumpet, Christine Mortensen-French horn-Al Piccin-1st reed, Melissa Westgate-cello
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA, (413) 298-3868
Running time: 3 hours, including one intermission
6/21/2000-7/08/2000; opening 6/22/2000
For season's schedule go here

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 22 performance

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