Palm Canyon's Camelot Shines With Strong Performances
Lerner and Loewe's Camelot is certainly from the top shelf of musical theatre titles, and that status brings its own difficulties: will it be a slavish effort to reconstruct, a rehashing of overly familiar tunes, or a hands-off treatment of a sacred cow? Fortunately, Palm Canyon Theatre's new production avoids these pitfalls and through all the pomp and circumstance, manages to deliver a devastating, heartbreaking tale of three people who love each other too dearly.
I saw Palm Canyon's 2010 production, and my main memory was a scenic turntable that sounded like elephants herding every time it revolved. Waiting for the show to begin this time around, I saw the same turntable on the stage. However, the entire show was played in front of the forest setting where the show begins, with simple thrones and other props carried onstage and set in front of it. I learned later that the turntable simply couldn't be coaxed to perform, and the simplification was a last-minute solution. That was a stroke of luck! By simplifying the setting, it brought more focus to the human interactions, and I loved it!
Paul Grant as Arthur and Se Layne as Guenevere start the show off as young strangers meeting accidentally before she realizes she is talking with the king, the man she is intended to wed. I was a bit worried about this section of the play because neither performer is a teenager, but their acting prowess displayed youthful fears and anxieties, and it was surprisingly simple to believe them. Both actor's voices are the stuff of dreams. Grant sets the level for the show with "I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight?" Then Layne shows that she's up to the challenge with her pure soprano sparkling on "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood."
The third point in the love triangle is Lancelot, the noblest knight ever known. He is boldly and beautifully sung by newcomer Jordan J. Jones. Arthur loves Lancelot as his son, his shining knight, his friend. Guenevere is stand offish towards the arrogant knight at first, maybe jealous of the affection Arthur is giving him, but eventually gives in to the love Lancelot professes for her. The performances of all three were uniformly excellent and captivating.
The finest moments of the evening for me were Arthur's speeches, notably his telling of the story of removing Excalibur from the stone and his soliloquy at the end of Act I when he tries to find how to deal with the two greatest loves of his life betraying him, as a man and as the king. Grant's handling of those speeches was a master class!
The remaining principals were uniformly excellent, especially knowing that the rehearsal time was truncated by the holidays. David Brooks gave Merlin a rich characterization in his brief opening scene. The venerable Garnet Smith shone as King Pellinore, an old friend who sets up residence in the castle as an advisor and friend (and dammit, how does he manage to memorize so many pages of dialogue into his 80's?). At the other end of the age spectrum, Noah Arce's Mordred, Arthur's bastard son, is a creature of untamed diabolical evil. With gangly limbs, a spikey haircut, and some amazing costumes, he is intriguingly loathsome as he single-handedly plots to destroy the kingdom known as Camelot. Nikki Hock does double duty as the voice of Nimue and the onstage character Morgan Le Fay, and her voice is great. Lastly, Fabrizio Ibanez brings hope and a smile as young Tom of Warwick, the boy whom Arthur commands to run away from the battle so that he may tell future generations about Camelot.
The eight male knights of the ensemble were all either 18 or 60, and everything they did seemed to take a long time. Some of their movements on opening night were a bit awkward, but on reflection, that was probably a result of the turntable not revolving and giving them the performing space they were used to.
Derik Shopinski has once again done triple duty as director, choreographer, and costumer - and excelled in all three categories. The principals rarely returned to the stage in the same outfit they had left in, with Arthur and Guenevere seemingly wearing a dozen regal looks each. That was spectacle enough!
Musical Director Steven Smith was at the piano, joined by David Bronson on drums and Larry Holloway on bass. Smith claims that this is his last show at PCT. I truly hope he reconsiders, because he has brought a whole new level of performance with track-free accompaniment, and his rich history of experience with musical theatre has been a great asset to the company for several years.
Camelot continues at Palm Canyon Theatre through February 9. Tickets and further information are available at www.palmcanyontheatre.org, or (760) 323-5123.
Photo by Paul Hayashi