“Camelot,” the 1960 musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, is still anchored in the legend of King Arthur and his knights of the roundtable, with a love triangle at the heart of this story of medieval battles and conflict.
But in length, look and feel, the revival that opens Tuesday at the Ordway Center has been given a makeover. The structure has been tweaked, songs have been reorchestrated and what used to be a three-hour-plus show has been pared to two hours and 20 minutes. Additionally, pastel scenery gives way to bolder, more realistic colors, and characters have more familiar names.
It’s all part of an effort by the creative team to make us see “Camelot” less as an abstracted fairy tale and more as a contemporary story that commands our attention at a time of increasing social anxiety. Think of this “Camelot” as a mashup of “The Bachelorette” and “Game of Thrones.”
“We tried to find the things in it that resonate today,” said director Michael McFadden. “And that thing is storytelling. These are fascinating people who lead interesting lives that we want to know more about.”
The show’s leading characters are King Arthur; his beautiful young wife, Guenevere, also called Jenny, and Lancelot, the bad-boy knight she fancies. Lancelot is younger than her husband and promises to add pizazz, spontaneity and zest to her life.
“These are larger-than-life people who represent abstractions of love and revenge and hate,” McFadden said. “Several years ago, we were talking about shows to revisit, and people are taking these epic stories, these fairy tales, and looking at them with a more modern sensibility. ‘Camelot’ is a natural piece to update.”
A more percussive score
The changes include making the score more percussive, instead of having big, lush harmonic sound, and changing the placement and context of songs.
McFadden has cast actors who are close in age so the gap between the men does not influence audiences to favor, say, Lancelot over Arthur. But the decision Guenevere has to make — be faithful to her husband or follow her heart — will affect the entire realm.
“When we first meet her, she’s a teenager who has just run away from the entourage that is taking her from her old castle to her new castle to meet a guy she’s never met,” said Mary McNulty, the St. Louis-bred actor who plays Guenevere in a breakout role. “She wants to be a teenager and live out her fantasies. I know that teenagers back then in the Middle Ages would curtsy and say, ‘Yes, father,’ but that’s not who she is. She’s more independent and rebellious.”
That free spirit is partly what intrigues Arthur and Lancelot.
Actor Adam Grabau plays Arthur in this national tour, while Tim Rogan plays Lancelot. Both answered in character when asked if Guenevere should follow her heart.
“We are legally and spiritually bound to each other! Married!” said Grabau’s Arthur. “By the law of the land, cheating on the king is punishable by death. Horrible burning-at-the-stake-type death.”
Rogan’s Lancelot played it coy. “Jenny should not choose me,” he said. “I am a knight for the king, and she is my queen. Furthermore, she is the wife of my best friend. Jenny is smart, passionate and determined, and for these reasons I know she will make the right decision, and stay with Arthur.”
That, at least, is what Lancelot voices publicly.
Ultimately, the love triangle will affect the fate of Camelot itself.
McNulty said that while she draws on her life experience to portray Guenevere, she has no personal reference for the scale of the dilemma.
“There’s a little bit of Mary McNulty in Jenny, for sure, but I’ve never been in a situation where if I make one choice, I die, and if I make another, I die,” she said. “When you’ve got a big group of people singing about how you’re going to burn at the stake, there’s a lot at stake.”
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390