For one brief, shining moment… But wait. I get ahead of myself.
There have been many different tellings of the legendary King Arthur’s story. Few omit Arthur’s beloved Guenevere; or the Invincible Sword Excalibur; or the centerpiece Round Table. Yet a Round Table without knights is just…a round table. Sirs Lancelot, Gallahad, Gawain, Percival, and several others — many others, by some tellings — all had their places around the Table and in the legend and lore that originated almost nine centuries ago.
The Knights of the Round Table brought some semblance of civilized order to Arthur’s ancient kingdom, and all about Camelot appeared good, even perfect. It took an illicit romance between Queen Guenevere and a favored knight, Sir Lancelot, to set off the chain of events that would dissolve the Round Table and turn the members into warring factions that destroyed the idyllic ways of the realm.
In 1960, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, themselves legends of Broadway theater, brought forth a concise encapsulation of the above events, set it to music and song. They named it “Camelot“. It is this retelling of the Arthurian legend that we had the pleasure of viewing at The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Mainstage theater.
The Company’s version stays true to the play’s Broadway origins in terms of the quality of performance, the simply elegant production design, and the strength of the individual talents who rise to artistic standards set by legendary performers like Richard Burton and Julie Andrews.
James D. Gish‘s rendition of “If Ever I Would Leave You” is certainly worthy of favorable comparison to Robert Goulet’s version, which became the latter actor’s signature performance piece for the rest of his career. Gish’s previous role in “Daddy Long Legs” cemented him in our minds as a world-class performer. Here, in his role as Sir Lancelot du Lac, he neither disappoints nor surprises us with his uncanny vocal range.
Kate Cook, as Guenevere, exudes boundless energy and dexterity in her playfully vampish performance of “The Lusty Month of May“. She shows her versatile vocal style and range while executing difficult dance moves with an ensemble of “noble knights”. Barely finishing that number, Cook immediately segues to the next scene, showing not a hint of fatigue from a very physical performance. Her nuanced reactions to the decidedly androcentric affairs of state hint at both an early feminist streak and a dark need for personal satisfaction, both of which manifest themselves in the course of the story.
Toby Yatso, who wowed us playing ten separate characters in “Murder for Two“, is the lynchpin of the production as King Arthur. He serves as the onstage narrator of the story, not through simple prose, but through a combination of dialog, song, and emotional depth. Yatso keeps us engaged and makes us forget that we are only outside observers. He takes us into the depths of his thoughts and his emotions, as when he recalls the sage advice of his long-absent mentor, Merlin, in “How To Handle A Woman”. We cannot help but to empathize with the troubled ruler of this mythical kingdom.
The supporting cast of five young and energetic actors (Matravius Avent, John Batchan, Tony Castellanos, Julian Mendoza and Kendrick Stallings) easily transition from revelers to squires to knights, each evoking unique personalities that distinguish them not only from each other, but from their various alter egos. At various times, they meld into a utilitarian background of cleverly orchestrated effects such as scene changes and prop manipulation. At other times, they step forward out of the shadows to be integral parts of the main performance, such as Batchan’s turn as Sir Mordred, the wayward bastard son of Arthur.
The set of the Mainstage, as already mentioned, is a fully-realized morphing of interiors and exteriors, including the eponymous castle looming in the distance. Costumes appear to be authentically 6th century, yet are designed to allow for the physicality of the performances. Sound quality has come a long way since the Golden Age of Broadway theater when the performers had to project their voices to the last row, making every utterance sound like an oratorio. The Phoenix Theatre Company has kept up with audio technology while remaining true to the tradition of live orchestra musical accompaniment. This makes for a more intimate and immersive experience, even in the grandeur of the events that unfold. On this night, we are transported to a realistic medieval castle, replete with authentic characters of folklore. For one brief, shining moment, the Mainstage theater is transformed into Camelot.