On the surface, it does not seem that large a leap for the Ohio Shakespeare Festival to go from Lear to Lerner and Loewe.
With a wardrobe closet chockfull of chainmail and flowing gowns, an arsenal of medieval weaponry and a talented, seasoned ensemble with Old English accents ever at the ready, the OSF’s production of “Camelot” seems to have the necessary fixings for this classic musical. But, as it turns out, not all of them.
Based on the King Arthur legend as interpreted in T.H. White’s novel “The Once and Future King,” the show – which featured the likes of Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet in its 1960 Broadway rendition – revolves around the love triangle between King Arthur, Guenevere and Sir Lancelot and their effort to bring to an uncivilized 6th century world a new level of enlightenment, where “violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness.”
The story is brilliantly conveyed through Alan Jay Lerner’s magnificent lyrics and Frederick Loewe’s memorable music, particularly during the final song – a slow and dramatic reprise of the title song – where Arthur makes a request to all within earshot: “Don’t let it be forgot/that once there was a spot/for one brief shining moment/that was known as Camelot.”
It’s the “shining” – the grandeur, elegance and idealism that is forever associated with this Tony Award-winning musical and its place as the accepted sobriquet for the John F. Kennedy presidency taking place during its original run – that is missing most from the OSF production.
It starts with the music, which is rented and prerecorded rather than live and dynamic.
You can’t blame the OSF for sidestepping the cost and inconvenience of an orchestra, but Loewe’s achievements are muted and distant as a result, which flattens out the emotionality of every song and comes across as if the company was singing along to a musical rather than actually performing one.
Staging the show in front of the same all-purpose set that is used during every production of the OSF’s outdoor season at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens doesn’t help matters. There is nothing “shining” or imaginative about this purely functional house façade. Austerity might work for Elizabethan tragedies and most plays set during medieval times, but musical theater requires more.
One of the highlights of this production is the incorporation of the company’s signature swashbuckling, which is magnificently staged by fight choreographer Ryan Zarecki and expertly executed by Jason Leupold, Joe Pine, Tess Burgler, Zarecki and others. However, its excessiveness seems forced in a show like this and flies in the face of the Camelot credo that “violence is not strength.”
Director Terry Burgler and choreographer Katie Zarecki attempt to balance these scenes with graceful dance, but OSF regulars approach it with the same rhythms as sword play, which makes it look more athletic and strategic than effortless and spontaneous.
Only Andrew Cruse as Arthur and Natalie Green – a newcomer to the OSF – as Guenevere seem as if they are inhabiting a musical. They have the voices to find meaning and romance in songs woefully underserved by their musical accompaniment, possess the presence and virtuosity to shine on a stage that has little luster of its own, and would stand out even without the aid of the dazzling wardrobe supplied by costumer Marty LaConte. They are interesting, elegant and accessible all the time.
The talented Joe Pine is fine as Lancelot, but never finds the self-deprecating humor in his character’s unfaltering decency or the beauty in “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Meanwhile, Geoffrey Darling is a delight as Pellinore, the war-weary and eccentric knight, Leupold is a wonderfully villainous Mordred, Arthur’s bitter illegitimate son, and Pete Robinson is a convincing Merlin.
Crossing over from the Bard to Broadway is a bold move for the OSF that should be encouraged and repeated. But there are lessons to be learned here. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” some theater companies are born to do great musicals, some achieve greatness, but it is never a good idea to have a great musical thrust upon ‘em.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.