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STAGE REVIEW : La Mirada's 'Camelot' Has Trouble Withstanding the Test of Time

March 24, 1994|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Camelot," currently at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, is sufficiently audience-friendly, conveying a poignant King Arthur, a Clark Kent-like Lancelot, and snatches of pageantry mixed with lowbrow comedy.

There's even an English sheep dog that appears to have wandered in from a production of "Annie."

The production, kicking off the 41st season of the Whittier-La Mirada Musical Theatre Assn., is a lush fairy tale enchanting enough to convey the political idealism behind Camelot's application to a whole American presidency. With happy timing for John F. Kennedy, this tale of a lovable, visionary king premiered on Broadway a month after his 1960 presidential election.

But the show hasn't entirely withstood the march of time. Then, as now, it's a mishmash of styles, striving to be too many things and reach into too many genres (comedy, pageantry, romance).

What holds the show afloat is its chivalrous idea of a Knightly Round Table (it is never actually dramatized) and lilting Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe songs such as "If Ever I Would Leave You" (about love's constancy). The meditative "How to Handle a Woman," is touchingly rendered by company veteran George Champion as King Arthur, and impressively accompanied by a formally attired 23-member pit orchestra under the baton of musical director Gary Gothold.

The casting, a combination of amateur performers and Equity guest artists, is vocally and dramatically appealing. Janine L. Benson plays Queen Guinevere, who is helplessly in love with knight Lancelot, a ramrod stiff, thankless role sturdily played by Jeff Weeks.

Also diverting is Hank Wilson's crusty Pellinore, a stock royal hanger-on and bushy-browed jester who wanders onstage with the sheep dog, called Horrid--strictly a crowd pleaser. You can be sure there was no dog in the Richard Burton-Julie Andrews Broadway original.

The strongest supporting performance is delivered by David O'Shea's dangerous villain Mordred, King Arthur's bastard son. He rats on the queen's secret affair with Lancelot and precipitates the concluding clash of arms, offstage.

As King Arthur, Champion mirrors grace, luminosity, hope and, finally, a classy king who discovers his queen's indiscretion but opts to grin and bear it for the sake of peace.

Based on T.H. White's book, "The Once and Future King," "Camelot" tends to be all spectacle without much movement. It's a writer's show, not a dancer's show. Even the battlefield finale goes undramatized.

The huge painted background scrims (uncredited) are moodily evocative of great English myth while the costumes (also uncredited, meaning they were rented) fall into orthodox realism.

Keenly felt is King Arthur's fade-out as he knights the earnest 13-year old Gabriel Kalomas in the pre-dawn of battle and sings the undying words, "Don't let it be forgot/that once there was a spot/for one brief shining moment/that was known as Camelot. . . ."

One quibble, at least for patrons down front: The actors are body-miked, and electrical cords were visible curling under their ears and down their necks--an off-putting anachronism if ever there was one.

* "Camelot," La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, at La Mirada and Rosecrans boulevards, La Mirada, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $25. (714) 994-6310 or (310) 944-9801. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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