Michael Brindisi has directed Camelot three times in 26 years. The appetite of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ audiences for traditional fare has given the company’s artistic director an intimate familiarity with this musical. Brindisi keeps a tight focus on the story’s resonant moral themes, despite some challenges presented by the material and some distractions created by questionable production decisions.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
Lerner and Loewe based this medieval musical (1960) on T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King (1958), a long and probing tome that portrays Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenevere as complex, adult human beings weighing the good of society against their own personal longings.
The novel’s main conflicts are admirably distilled, though it sometimes feels like the writer (Lerner) and composer (Loewe) are wrestling with the constraints of their form: Weighty discussions are interrupted by sprightly (albeit sublime) musical numbers. Brindisi handles these shifts in tone using careful direction — with a troubled glance here, a telling pause there, we’re reminded of the stakes these characters face while they sing their droll songs of chivalry.
Helen Anker’s Guenevere is so exquisitely poised, it’s like she was born into the role. Pitch-perfect in both singing and acting, Anker virtually writes a textbook on how to play this classic queen, despite the fact that “Jenny” gets short shrift in the script. Unfortunately, the two actors flanking Anker aren’t quite as magisterial.
Keith Rice succeeds in portraying Arthur as a fundamentally decent man who inspires his wife’s admiration if not her ardor. Still, when times get troubled Rice tends to default to a stock grimace that makes it seem as if he needs Merlyn (David Anthony Brinkley) to whip up some magical Miralax.
Meanwhile, Aleks Knezevich seems lost as Lancelot, especially once the character develops beyond the callow boasting that allows Knezevich to essentially reprise his role as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. There could not be less sexual tension between the confident Anker and the blankly pining Knezevich.
There are some goofy production choices, including the decision to stage the jousting scene as a sort of interpretive dance-off. Choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson does better with lithe Renee Guittar as the seductive spirit Nimue, though her mossy bodysuit looks like something Merce Cunningham might lounge around in at deer camp.
The show is most compelling in quiet moments: when Arthur works out the inconvenient truth that leadership means sacrifice, when Guenevere casts a sly eye across the stage, when Lancelot is overcome by his realization of the miraculous gifts God has given him. Ultimately, the absorbing gravity of its storytelling makes this a Camelot worth visiting.
IF YOU GO:
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
501 W. 78th St., Chanhassen
952-934-1525; through February 25