Asolo Repertory Theatre has debuted a new stripped-down version of “Camelot” that is a perfect fit for a pandemic-era performance. Unlike Lerner and Loewe’s other classics “My Fair Lady” and “Brigadoon,” both of which I fell in love with during my elementary school days, I recall seeing “Camelot” in high school and finding it sluggish and dull. Apparently, the original Broadway version was actually four and a half hours. So, it was a stroke of genius for Michael Donald Edwards, Asolo’s producing artistic director, to put the bloated “Camelot” on the chopping block to create a fit and fabulous 90-minute production for Sarasota audiences to enjoy under the clear skies of, as Edwards called it, Florida’s own Camelot.
It’s been lovely to watch the team of Edwards and Linda DiGabriele, managing director, joyfully introduce the shows at the newly developed outdoor Terrace Stage, which Edwards said has been an exemplar for theaters around the country interested in learning how to produce shows amid the shuttered theaters of the pandemic. “Fannie,” earlier this season, was a one-woman show so it did not present the complications of “Camelot” with its cast of five, but the actors skillfully maintained social distancing by singing near one another and never touching. Hats off to Asolo Rep associate artistic director Celine Rosenthal and to Ethan Vail, the lighting designer, for the colorful and evocative staging.
The chemistry among particularly the three extraordinary leads was always palpable, primarily propelled by the redoubtable talents of Britney Coleman. Coleman has returned to the Asolo stage after her tremendous performance as Marian Paroo in “The Music Man” opposite tap sensation Noah Racey. From the moment she stepped on stage, her dulcet vocals, enveloped the audience like the cosey blankets we remembered to bring for the chilly 8pm evening show. Her Queen Guenevere is no shrinking violet but rather a fearless leader in her own right with a force of personality, humor, and charisma. Coleman had joined the Broadway cast of “Company” days before the shut down, and Sarasota audiences are lucky to get this rising star back before Broadway reopens when her dance card will surely be full.
Nick Duckart is whimsical and charming as King Arthur, and he masterfully embodies Arthur’s goodness and his will to do what is right at all costs. He falls head over heels in love with “Genny” as he calls his queen and into a deep bromance with Lancelot (Joseph Grayson). Lancelot is even-parts arrogant and humble, and Grayson plays this contradiction to the hilt. He proves an interesting foil for Arthur as they nearly outdo one another in a quest for earnestness; and his voice is magnificent and pure when he professes his love in “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
The arrival of Mordred (John Rapson), the son Arthur sired before he met Genny, brings down the energy of the production much as he sets his intention to bring down Camelot itself. His song “The Seven Deadly Virtues” is a less captivating number and when Coleman, Duckart, and, Grayson leave the stage, you can feel the production flatten. We know that ultimately Camelot must fall, but in these difficult times it’s hard to watch darkness beset the kingdom. But when Coleman and Duckart return for their final duet together “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” the musical interlude brings the magic back for a bit and is capped with a stylish Irish gig by Duckart.
I’ve always loved the story of the sword in the stone, which only a worthy leader has the will and capacity to remove. And the good government notion of a humble King loosely presiding over a round table where all his advisors share equally in decision-making and leadership is also compelling. I was not around for the Kennedy administration, which was admired for its grace and elegance; but the idea of a blissful and righteous kingdom called Camelot has floated about in our collective consciousness for over sixty years since its debut on Broadway. Apparently, Kennedy himself was a fan of the music. In some ways, despite the pandemic, we are entering a second Camelot era. We’ve hit 100 million shots in arms forty days early and watched the most diverse Cabinet, a modern-day round table, if you will, swiftly get sworn into their posts.
The beautiful production ended on a note of hope and glory and set just the right tone as we floated off to the parking lot singing the numbers quietly to ourselves after a fully contactless opening night. We got a taste of Broadway for a brief shining moment, and it was just the dose we needed to keep our spirits up until we can all gather safely once more.