Camelot at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre

 

Keith Rice and Alex Knezevitch in Camelot. Photo by Heidi Bohencamp

Keith Rice and Alex Knezevitch in Camelot. Photo by HHeidi Bohnenkamp

The best thing about the new production of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, through February 25, 2017) is King Arthur. Keith Rice has everything the role requires and is a delight to watch. He’s developed a complex character that is at once capable of boyish charm and mature leadership. Rice boasts a fine baritone voice and an engaging comedic touch. He carries the play from the moment he drops out of a tree in the first act to the end when he knights “Tom of Warwick” (Jay Soulen/Carter Bannwarth) to keep the utopian dream of “Right Makes Might” alive.

Rice is supported in his efforts by David Anthony Brinkley who presents a rousing Merlin. His opening monologue sets the stage perfectly for what is to follow. Merlin, Arthur’s mentor and teacher, disappears soon after the beginning of the play but Brinkley returns as the quixotic King Pellinore in another fine performance. Alex Knezevitch is also good, if a little too unwavering, as the pure and holy Lancelot.

Even before the play begins, the blue-green backdrop and lichen covered trees portray a world where both the routine and the enchanted exist side by side (Nayna Ramey, designer). The faux tapestries that appear in later scenes accentuate the medieval setting.

With such good acting and staging it is odd that the play falters where one expects it to shine. The ensemble number “The Lusty Month of May” which should be relatively easy to stage, is awkward. Choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson seems afraid to allow them to have any real fun and the actors seem to lack the verve to frolic.

Helen Anker as Lady Guenevere, King Arthur’s Queen and consort, is equally stiff. Granted, the role doesn’t translate well into the twenty first century. Guenevere insists that Arthur’s innovation of trial by jury is silly. She desires to have a war fought over her. What great fun it would be to be ravaged and raped, she sings. What Lancelot sees in her is never explained. In this role, Anker turns in a fairly accurate impression of Julie Andrews (who inaugurated to role on Broadway) with crisp enunciations and a cool attitude. A little more warmth would go a long way to bolster this character.

The joust scene— a well done scene of dancers imitating horses in the arena–is where Guenevere and Lancelot fall in love, thus beginning the downfall of this idealized realm. The moment where their eyes supposedly meet and King Arthur understands that they are hopelessly in love is not played to its full effect. It’s not until the next scene that the audience understands what has happened.

The band also seemed a little ragged. Again this is not an area where one expects the Chanhassen to drop the ball, but on opening night the music did not soar but frequently squawked. If the intention was to sound like an early music ensemble playing period instruments it failed. One hopes they were under-rehearsed and that their performance will improve.

Camelot first appeared on Broadway in 1960 at a time when the utopian dream of founding a society on the principles of righteousness and justice seemed close at hand. Today we live in far more cynical times. The willing suspension of disbelief required of an audience who wishes to enjoy this musical is far harder to come by but it may be more necessary than ever to believe that such worlds are worth establishing, no matter how flawed the outcome.

 

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