Encore Michigan

Farmers Alley reignites ‘Camelot’ with modern flair

Review October 07, 2019 Bridgette Redman

KALAMAZOO, Mich.–There are many ways to tell the story of Camelot and many have undertaken it since at least the 9th century when a Welsh cleric narrated 12 of King Arthur’s battles.

One of the more popular modern tellings of the story has been Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, first produced in 1960 as a traditional Golden Age musical that was full of spectacle, large choruses, a sweeping score, and loads of period costumes. The original was nominated for five Tony awards (and only Julie Andrews did not win), and it’s been performed in theaters around the world since then.

Farmers Alley Theatre opens its 2019-2020 season with a different take on the Lerner and Lowe musical. David Lee has created a small cast version—one requiring only nine actors. While one could be cynical and suggest it was merely an economic decision, a way to make the show more affordable for regional theaters, the reworking is brilliantly done, putting a sharp focus on the three main characters and transforming it to an intimate story of love, hope and leadership.

It takes most of the beloved songs from the original show and creates a musical with a very modern feel to it. It sheds much of the frivolity of the earlier version and creates a highly character-driven show.

In his director notes, Lee Buckholz says that Lee gives very little creative guidance in terms of how the show is to be staged. This provided a boon for Buckholz and his creative team as they put their own stamp on the show, a stamp that perfectly fit the Farmers Alley space and bestowed a unity on the production from start to finish.

He opens the show not with the traditional overture and march, but with the actors coming out in rustic clothing that was a mix of timeless period and modern costuming. Playing their bardic instruments, they interacted with the audience, welcoming them, engaging in conversations, transforming the space from a stage to a fireside circle in which the audience was gathered in the grand tradition of oral storytelling, there to hear something passed from generation to generation.

Young Tom, played by Daniel Schubkegel (most recently seen at The Barn Theater’s Big as Young Josh), who traditionally doesn’t make an appearance until the end of the show, takes center stage with his drum, creating a beat, launching into “his” tale of the legendary Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Once the original minstrels have scattered to take their roles in the story, Dave Anthony Vogel enters as King Arthur, sharing with us his fears of marriage.

Vogel is everything we could want in a King Arthur. He’s charismatic, optimistic, noble, and earnest. He’s full of youthful energy and idealism. He’s so likable and so inherently good to everyone that he comes in contact with, that it is hard to see why Guinevere could even look twice at Lancelot or any other person. Arthur is clearly the best catch. It does, though, set up that “the heart wants what it wants” regardless of rational choices, which is a key theme in the musical.

Every choice Vogel makes further invests the audience in Arthur’s dreams and his happiness. He infuses Arthur with so much passion that you find yourself desperately wishing there could be a different ending to this age-old story.

Sarah Ellis matches Vogel’s energy and passion and the two are easily believable as one of the legendary couples of all time. While her Guinevere has her moments of shallowness and flighty behavior, Ellis’ queen has great depth, spirit and heart. Ellis is the only woman in the cast and she owns the stage whenever she is on it. Her magnetism entrances everyone.

Ellis gives Guinevere so much sparkle that the moments where she is drained of her liveliness sends powerful gut punches to those around her.

The chemistry between Ellis and Vogel sells the relationship between king and queen and sets up the tragedy that is to come in the most powerful manner possible. They take songs like “What do the simple folk do?” and transform it from a light, fun number into a heartbreaking one that primes the pump for the tears that are to come.

Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton has a difficult task as Lancelot. He must simultaneously show why the other knights and the queen dislike him at first and why he should have such a presence that it is capable of overthrowing all the good that everyone is so committed to achieving. Toniazzo-Naughton enters with the over-weening pride necessary for performing “C’est Moi,” but quickly reveals that he carries with him a sadness and that he possesses a soul that wars with itself.

The round table is further represented by three knights—Atis Kleinbergs as Sir Lionel, Jeff Cachero as Sir Dinandan, and Este’Fan Kizer as Sir Sagamore. Their voices bring a rich and varied texture to the music and their acting a welcome comic relief to the heartbreaking main storyline. The trio, along with Hunter Buckingham as Sir Kay and Aleksander Papanastasopoulos as Mordred, are frequently on stage, sometimes sitting in the backdrop, providing an extra audience to the events on stage.

It’s a staging that works extremely well, contributing to the theatricality of the show. This is a show designed to be shared with people in a room together, not one recorded or where a director controls the audience eye with focused camera shots. Instead, Buckholtz uses these actors to create a richly layered backdrop that allows for multiple experiences.

This version does cut out a few songs, but in so doing, it underscores the element of human choice. By eliminating Morgan le Fay and the magical trapping of Arthur out in the woods, the action and the ultimate climax falls not on supernatural intervention, but on human agency and the power of human faith in loved ones.

Kathy Mulay’s costuming contributed to the thematic telling of this story from the troubadour type outfits in the beginning to the luscious period costumes worn by the story’s “characters.” The color choices were particularly powerful, underlining the events of each scene, the relationships and the period.

Equally impressive was the lighting design by Lanford J. Potts. He used a full-color palette from pastels to shadows to primaries to richly texture the scene. There were times the lights were as tightly choreographed as the orchestra, with notes that changed with every beat.

Cindy Hunter led the talented orchestra from another room, with a video projection near the light booth allowing her to communicate with the actors on stage and to make sure the musical cues landed with perfect timing.

The small-cast version of Camelot playing at Farmers Alley packs an emotional punch while presenting a classic musical with a very modern feel and an emphasis on themes that feel more relevant than ever. Arthur’s quest for civilized government, Lancelot’s warring with his better and worse nature, Guinevere’s passion for both her lover and her husband, and Mordred’s desire to spoil all the good that others do—these all resonate clearly under Buckholtz’ direction.

It’s a show well worth seeing, whether you’re familiar with the original Lerner and Loewe or whether it is your first time entering the magical, shining world of Camelot.