- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Strip away the Kennedy connotations, the references to an ideal (i.e., Democratic) society and the multicultural “I’d like to teach the world to sing” sentiments, and Arena Stage’s production of “Camelot” is still a dream.

Artistic director Molly Smith clearly has an affinity for Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s majestic 1960 musical based on T.H. White’s book “The Once and Future King,” about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Miss Smith has staged one of the most resonant and poignant “Camelots” ever seen, and that includes many a road show that first starred Richard Harris and then Robert Goulet (who played Lancelot in the original Broadway company) as King Arthur. She has not only revitalized this tuneful warhorse, but also re-invented the show for modern sensibilities. Her “Camelot” will appeal to “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” fans, but devotees of classic musical theater will not be left in the lurch.

Much of “Camelot’s” beauty lies in the casting, starting with Kate Suber as Guenevere. Miss Suber combines killer pipes (Her voice reminds you of Julie Andrews, without the freakish high C’s) with a feisty acting style.

Swishing her crinkled silk-and-velvet gowns — designed by Paul Tazewell to include sumptuous patterns of Celtic knots — Miss Suber’s Guenevere has a fiery spirit that informs her devotion to the two men who would risk all for her — King Arthur (Steven Skybell) and the king’s top knight, Lancelot (Matt Bogart).

Old chestnuts such as “The Lusty Month of May” and “Take Me to the Fair” sound positively reborn as sung by Miss Suber. Her Guenevere is, refreshingly, no mere pawn living out her fate; she is an equal partner with her husband, the king.

Mr. Skybell makes a vigorous and thoughtful Arthur, and his expressive singing voice lends shadow and light to his songs, “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight,” “How to Handle a Woman” and “Camelot.” Mr. Skybell portrays Arthur as a young king reluctant to leave boyhood — and his mentor, Merlin (J. Fred Shiffman) — behind, until meeting Guenevere points him to his purpose in life. His Arthur makes a transcendent journey from carefree youth to troubled middle age without losing his idealism.

In many cases, the too-good-to-be-true Lancelot is almost laughable, especially when he sings his signature song, an ode to his perfection, “C’est Moi.” Yet, Matt Bogart exudes such tenderness and romanticism, he pulls off “C’est Moi” with aplomb. Lanky and handsome, he certainly looks the part of Lancelot, and his charged portrayal of the knight escapes any trace of ridiculousness.

Mr. Shiffman is a standout as both the shamanlike Merlin and, later, the aged knight Sir Pellinore, a gently comic role. Jack Ferver is effective as the sneering, devious Mordred. With his leather duds and punk-rock attitude, he’s a medieval version of Billy Idol.

Kate Edmunds’ set, all gilded brambles and branches, evokes a world where magic and warfare mingled on the same plane. This mystical-rough world is reflected in Paul Tazewell’s costumes, which incorporate fur, leather and velvet to show a society that is both rich and barbaric. Arena’s Knights of the Round Table are a Dark Ages United Nations, and Mr. Tazewell reaches great heights creating the Asian-, African- and Spanish-inspired costumes for the knights and their ladies.

Miss Smith’s “Camelot” leaves you with its sense of urgency: Arthur knows his time is short to create a society where “might is for right” and knights are used for peacekeeping.

His idealism is tragic, but Miss Smith makes sure it is also touching.

Instead of “Camelot” being drearily regal and fraught with pageantry, this staging presses upon you the importance of chivalry and the fragility of times of peace.

King Arthur may or may not even have existed, but this production of “Camelot” reminds us of the power of myth to move and inspire, to awaken in us the nobility that breathes in our hearts.

***1/2

WHAT: “Camelot” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

TIMES: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through Jan. 4.

TICKETS: $42 to $60

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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