Act II Playhouse Camelot Review: A Spellbinding Mixture of Medieval Music, Legend, Magic, Romance, and Chivalry – Don’t Miss It, Before June 24!




So what are the elements needed to create a spellbinding theatrical experience?  To conjure up a medieval epic of the courtly love triangle, romance, and royalty of the Arthurian legend?  Keep reading this review!


First and foremost, do not miss this production.  It is a production that you do not want to end, one in which the suspension of disbelief truly makes you feel that you are in the legendary court of Camelot, even for two and a half hours. 

Act II’s production has done something truly remarkable.  They have taken the Arthurian legend – one of the oldest and greatest legends in Western civilization – and retold it in a way that is truly original.

Spoiler alert: This story is 1500 years old, and you’ll read key plot points in this review.  In general, the reviewer tries to avoid giving away important points in a review, and I generally try to adhere to this principal. But given that the story is over a millennium and a half old, I have to write a review based on the idea that the reader has some idea of the fundamentals of the Arthurian legend!   Or you probably wouldn’t be considering a decision to see Camelot to begin with!  So please read with that caveat in mind. 

So before we begin, here’s the logistical information:

Camelot has received so much critical acclaim and enjoyed so much commercial success, that it has been extended twice; it was originally scheduled to end on June 10; it has now been extended through June 24.   However, many performances, particularly those on the weekend, are sold out, and the theater, located in the heart of Ambler, Pennsylvania, is quite intimate – and so it sells out quickly.  You can get tickets by visiting:

http://act2.org/cms2/index.php/onstage/2017-18-season/camelot

or by calling 215.654.0200 

Act II Playhouse is located in the heart of Ambler, with its revived downtown, but there is parking available in many areas around the theater, check out their web site for details.

The legend of King Arthur and Camelot has existed since the 5th century, and its characters and setting have evolved drastically over the ensuing sixteen centuries.  Each retelling reflects the time in which it is retold.  The musical Camelot is probably the best known version today, due to the incredible popularity of both the show and movie.  Its music is beautiful, its characters – with one notable exception, Mordred – are decent and sympathetic, its plot is compelling, and its message is timeless.

The musical is based on the 20th century novel, The Once and Future King, by T. H. White, who was profoundly influenced by the two world wars he lived through.  In the show, you’ll notice a great emphasis on the issues of war and peace, the proper use of power, the rule of law, and the question of how “might should be used for right”.  He also used humor, which is why Camelot can most accurately be called a comedy-drama; his humor is reflected in the show’s script.   Much of the dialogue is hilarious!

A creative decision that works well, is that the show is not staged with British accents; having the cast speak in their normal voices reinforces the point that the power of the story is universal, and resonates far beyond Britain. 
Also, you are immediately drawn in by the circular, wooden set, clearly meant to evoke the legendary Round Table.

The heart of the show is the love triangle between King Arthur, Queen Guenevere, and the French knight Sir Lancelot du Lac.  All three are played to perfection.

Although the original King Arthur on Broadway was Richard Burton, the Irish actor Richard Harris played the king in the movie and on stage, and his version of the long-suffering, idealistic, and melancholy king is the dominant image of Arthur.

Jeffrey Coon brings the character to life in exactly the proper way: Arthur is a young, idealistic king who yearns to create a utopia.  He has attained power and prestige that he never remotely expected, by pulling the sword from the stone – but he doesn’t let his newfound status corrupt him.  Instead, he wants to use his power to unite the realm, stamp out wickedness, and create a Round Table – one in which he downplays his own authority, for the common good. 

He wants his knights – whom, despite their aspirations to be perfectly chivalrous, often fall far short of that ideal – to use their violent tendencies to defend damsels in distress, protect the powerless, and most importantly, to channel their destructive tendencies into socially desirable goals.  If there are still knights in the realm who persist in being wicked, he wants the knights of Camelot to attempt to persuade them to “buy in”, so to speak, to the new ways, and if not, besiege their castles and ensure that they no longer threaten the peace and security of the kingdom.

Because Arthur is such an ancient, complex character, and with his image vacillating wildly over the centuries, playing him is a formidable challenge for any actor.  But Coon hits all the right notes, both literally and figuratively.  He brings the young king to life on stage – one who genuinely believes that he can change the world for the better, that human nature can be changed, that power can be used for good, not evil.

He also conveys that deep sense of betrayal upon his discovery of the love triangle: the adulterous affair between Guenevere and Lancelot.  There are two schools of thought about Arthur’s view of their affair – with each depends on the age of Arthur’s character.  One view is that royal marriages were arranged – quite explicitly - for political reasons, not love matches.  Accordingly, it was not unusual for a king to marry a much younger princess.  In this scenario, Arthur might be willing to overlook the dalliance between his young queen and a knight her own age, as long as they did it discreetly. 

The other view is that Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot are all contemporaries – and that’s decidedly the view of the Camelot musical.  Arthur is genuinely shocked by the betrayal of his beloved bride and queen with his most faithful and loyal knight – and Coons poignantly shows the pain upon his discovery of it.  In keeping with this view, Arthur also would prefer to believe that the affair doesn’t exist – an illusion he goes to great pains to sustain.

Eileen Cella is outstanding as Guenevere.   For many of us, the quintessential Guenevere is Vanessa Redgrave in the 1967 film version, in which the queen is portrayed as fickle and frivolous, one whose inability to control her feelings destroys her marriage, her sovereign, her lover, and the peace of the realm.  (I’ve seen other productions, but the version preserved on film will almost always be the one that dominates one’s view of a character.)

Cella’s Guenevere is quite different than the Redgrave version.  Her Guenevere is thoughtful, conflicted, and genuinely troubled by the powerful, dueling emotions – her genuine love and affection for Arthur, and the duty she owes both him and the kingdom – and the passions of her heart for Lancelot.  While she ultimately gives way to temptation, Cella’s performance makes it clear that it is not a decision that she makes lightly.

And her voice is superb, from all the scenes of celebration with Arthur, her initial disdain for Lancelot, and her later passion for him.   The scene which best showcases Cella’s vocal talent is “The Lusty Month of May”, in which Guenevere goes “a-Maying”.  This scene is deeply symbolic within both the show and the legend: it shows that these characters are in the bloom of life, that fleeting period of young adulthood when anything is possible.  It also reflects the symbolic beginning of Arthur’s reign – an eternal spring and summer of peace and prosperity, which, with supernatural help from Merlin, can last forever.

There is a darker side, however, in the pagan origins of the May festival.  The ancient Celts – and the Arthurian legend stems from their – often used the beginning of spring (May Day) as a “time out”, so to speak, from the normal boundaries of appropriate romantic relationships.  It was a time to celebrate the renewed fertility of the earth and of youth, and consequently, it was a time for affairs, legitimate or otherwise.  As Guenevere sings, “It’s a time for every frivolous whim, proper or im – and a time to make each precious day one you’ll always rue!”  Her words will prove prophetic.

There is another very compelling theme throughout Camelot – the concept of time, that it is fleeting – the idea that life is short, and it’s important to keep in mind to savor every moment of it.  As the lyrics say in “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” – “Come taste delight while you may!”  Merlin lives backward, through the centuries, and his unique time perspective is what gives Arthur his wisdom.  The signature phrase from the show – “one brief shining moment” – from the title song, also reinforces this theme – enjoy the moment, now, before it passes.

Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton is terrific as Lancelot.  Being the perfect knight is not an easy pinnacle to attain, but he pulls it off.  From the haughty comedy of “C’est Moi”, to the tormented passion of “If Ever I Would Leave You” – the signature song of the legendary Robert Goulet, who originated the role on Broadway - his voice brings the French chevalier to life.

Although the melancholy love triangle is the main plot, there is a great deal of comic relief and characters.  The wizard Merlin – the tutor to Arthur – is an absent-minded gentleman prone to forgetting important facts, despite his unparalleled intelligence and wisdom.  He also – like Arthur and Lancelot – is not immune to the charms of young women.  King Pellinore is the epitome of the inept medieval king, another forgetful sort.  The superannuated Pellinore’s haplessness makes it easy to understand why Britain needs someone like Arthur to save it from itself.  Scott Langdon plays both roles with impeccable comic timing.

The villain, of course, is Mordred – played with diabolical cunning by Luke Bradt.  (Worth noting – although he is most commonly described as Arthur’s illegitimate son with his half-sister – unknowingly, to Arthur, due to sorcery – Mordred has sometimes been described as a relative of some kind, not necessarily a son.)  

Our favorite scene was the jousting scene – where the entire cast fervently watches Lancelot take on a trio of knights – and their reaction to the jousters created a remarkably effective illusion that chivalric combat was indeed taking place. The stage combat is particularly strong on a small stage.

The knights and ensemble – Jordan Dobson, Rajeer Alford, Joey Abramowicz, and Patrick Romano – keep the action moving at a spirited pace, throughout.  And the vocals of the ensemble soar alongside those of the leads.

The best known version of the Arthurian legend of Camelot is Le Morte Darthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory of Warwickshire in 1485.  It was written during the Wars of the Roses in Britain, a bitter civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York.  Malory, a Yorkist, retold the tale of an idealized court and a benign monarch, precisely because his country was engulfed in a destructive conflict.  Malory wanted to recreate the idea of a king and court that always sought to use its power and resources for the good of all.

Which brings us back to the musical Camelot?  Malory is even included in the script!  You’ll notice, at one point, a character named “Tom of Warwick”, played by Iman Aaliyah – who also serves as Narrator - whom the king commands to tell his story.  That character is the young Sir Thomas Malory, who, more than any other writer over 1500 years, would do the most to shape the legend of King Arthur and his court.

It is also a product of the 19th and 20th centuries.  In Victorian times, there was an enormous revival of interest in the Middle Ages, chivalry, heraldry, medieval romance, the deeds of knights, and especially the Arthurian legend.  There was an explosion of medieval architecture, art, and literature.  For example, the reason so many colleges and universities have Gothic architecture was that they were built during this period.  

In the 19th century, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote The Idylls of the King, 12 poems in which Malory’s story is retold, with Victorian values.  It in turn influenced White’s version in the 20th-century novel The Once and Future King, the adaptation of which, is the version you will see on stage in Ambler (assuming, of course, that you can get tickets!)