Theatre Guild’s ‘Camelot’: Streamlined and satisfying

The cast of Camelot. [Photo: Kaila Jones]

This is not your grandfather’s “Camelot.” Heck, it isn’t even your big brother’s.

You’ll see that the moment the curtain opens at the Vero Beach Theatre Guild. Rather than a massive castle spanning the width of the stage, the story is set in a clearing in the forest. The cast, numbering only nine actors, instead of the typical dozen or more, come onto stage with long, wooden staffs. They bang them on the stage in primitive, tribal cadence, before one of them steps out to begin the “Once Upon a Time” story.

But this new version is nevertheless filled with all those soaring, beautiful songs you’ve grown to love from the original Lerner and Lowe musical. It has the passion, humor, charm and most of all, inventiveness.

No question about it, a fresh breeze has blown into a 70-year-old musical.

“It’s a new adaptation by David Lee,” says director Alex Martinez. “It’s a more intimate experience than what the show usually is. The audience has been loving it.”

While all the music is there, from “C’est Moi” and “How to Handle a Woman” to “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “Camelot,” changes did have to be made to tighten the story’s pacing. In fact, you’ll be out in two hours instead of three.

John Caterina, who plays King Arthur, did the same role in a production of the original version last year in Tennessee. He said the biggest change for him was doing away with two characters – Merlyn the Magician and King Pellinore, the older knight mentor.

“But it was very cleverly done,” says Caterina. “The end result is a much more interactive form, with a lot more breaking of the fourth wall. It’s told as a player sitting by the campfire telling the story of Camelot.”

Having performed the original version last year, there are times when Caterina says he was prone to mix up a line.

“There’s a couple of altered scenes, and characters are now missing,” he explains. “A lot of the dialogue had to be changed here and there, cut back or moved to different scenes. In the original version, there are conversations I have with Merlyn. I had to catch myself a couple of times where I start to talk to Merlyn, but he’s not there so I can’t do that.”

Rather than all the heraldry expected in a Knights of the Round Table fable, here the costumes, props, scenery and lighting all have a rustic look. The knights don’t wear suits of armor; they wear leather breast plates.

Their swords, all except for King Arthur’s, are wooden. Caterina came with his own sword, a proper one that he used previously.

And that’s nice, because there’s a perfect, story-telling bit of theater early in the show, when a younger member of the cast depicts the Arthurian legend of the young man pulling the sword from the stone.

“Have sword, will travel,” Caterina said. “The nice thing is I get to use it twice.”

The musical number “Before I Gaze at You Again” has been changed into a duet between Lady Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.

“It’s even more beautiful because you get to hear his side as well,” says Martinez.

In an interview in Theatermania.com, Lee, who produced and wrote for such popular television shows as “Frasier,” “Cheers” and “Wings,” said that his idea was to pare down the story to its basic elements.

“I realized I didn’t need a whole chorus of people or fancy scenery,” he explained. “And all of a sudden, I went ‘Oh, I think there’s an important, touching, sexy story here.’”

So yes, at heart is the story of a love triangle. King Arthur loves Lady Guinevere, played by the sweet voiced Caitlin Harris. He also considers Sir Lancelot, a powerfully voiced Jack Evans, to be his ideal for a man.

At first, Lady Guinevere finds Sir Lancelot to be rather a ruffian. She wants nothing to do with him. But after a jousting scene, he saves the life of a knight who has fallen, and she sees something deep within him. The love triangle has been forged.

They try to resist their love, which proves the downfall not only for them but also for the realm of Camelot.

“I just fell in love with this version,” says Jon Putzke, president of the Vero Beach Theatre Guild. “It is new, exciting, faithful to the original score and storyline. And the fact that we had three musicals on our schedule, we thought this little gem would fit perfectly between the two big ones.”

Putzke is just as enthusiastic about Martinez, who he calls a “brilliant young talent.”

Indeed. This marks a solid debut as a director for Martinez. A talented 23-year-old theater student at Indian River State College, he moved with his family from Westchester County, just north of New York City, to Vero Beach two years ago. Previously, he had written and acted, and directed an improve group at his high school.

Martinez immediately got involved with the Theatre Guild and directed a staged reading of “A Night in the Theater” last season. Next season, he’ll be directing the VBTG season opening of “Over the Tavern” in July.

His concept for “Camelot” was to keep it as clean and lean as Lee’s script.

“It goes back to the roots of theater,” says Martinez. “You have performance and storytelling. The big thing in this new version is to have the audience fill in the blanks by using their imagination. You don’t have to build a castle for the audience to feel like they’re in a castle. We’re all on this imaginative journey together.”

“Camelot” runs through Dec. 1 at the Vero Beach Theatre Guild, 2020 San Juan Ave., Vero Beach. It performs 7:30 p.m. weeknights and 2 p.m. weekends. The theater is dark on Mondays. Tickets are $15 to $30. Call 772-562-8300 or visit VeroBeachTheatreGuild.com.

 

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