In 1960 two legendary tuners bowed in Gotham exactly seven months apart: two-planks-and-a-passion romance “The Fantasticks” (May 3) and lavish spectacle “Camelot” (Dec. 3). Fifty years later at the Pasadena Playhouse, their destinies are again intertwined, after a fashion, as an expurgated “Camelot” receives a “Fantasticks”-like bare-bones staging with a mere eight thesps, minimalist set and a paper moon. Happily, this “Came-less” is more: With the central love triangle taking centerstage to the exclusion of all medieval frou-frou, the show’s emotional core has never been clearer.
Helmer David Lee of TV’s “Cheers” deserves cheers. Giving the heave-ho to Pellinore and dog, Morgan le Fay, Merlin (though ever-present in mind) and Nimue leaves room for virtually every number, including those usually cut. Meanwhile, a semi-narrated Story Theater treatment zips briskly through Alan Jay Lerner’s distillation of the Arthurian legend in just over two hours. And when could the phrase “zips briskly” ever before be applied to “Camelot”?
In Lee’s interp King Arthur (Shannon Stoeke) is an idealistic boy-king doomed by a fatal lack of human insight. Because Merlin’s youthful lessons turned him into animals but kept him detached from people, Arthur fails to recognize Guinevere (Shannon Warne) as a vain, sultry minx utterly wrong for sharing his lofty dreams. Nor does it occur to him that religious zeal, as personified by priggish Lancelot (Doug Carpenter), is vulnerable in the face of elemental appetites.
These contemporary psychological portraits, true to the libretto and T.H. White’s original novel, are brought out at Pasadena, when more lavish mountings tend to overwhelm the tale’s ironies and urgency.
Like Arthur’s vision of world peace, this particular production doesn’t always live up to its ideal. Warne and Carpenter knock Frederick Loewe’s timeless ballads “I Loved You Once in Silence” and “If Ever I Would Leave You” out of the park, but Warne is given to crossing her arms and pouting, a hard coarseness obscuring her intended sensuality, while Carpenter never comes close to conveying the anguish of a hero whose aspiration to perfection is rent by lust.
Adapter Lee isn’t always well served by helmer Lee, either. A dully literal restaging of the Sword in the Stone stage right, as Arthur describes it stage left, distracts us from studying the spellbinding effect on Jenny, which is the monologue’s chief purpose. Musical stager Mark Esposito’s bookending round dances are right out of a cheesy Renaissance Faire.
Still, a knightly trio (Zachary Ford, Richard R. Segall and Andrew Ross Wynn) works mightily to bring alive the full range of Round Table emotions and attitudes. And Stoeke inhabits Arthur every step of the way from youthful exuberance to 11th-hour despair. We believe this giddy guy could have been called “Wart” as a child, just as we buy his almost physical disappointment when the cynical predictions of viperish bastard son Mordred — a scintillating Will Bradley — come to pass, and the world breaks under the strain of human frailty.
A rehearsal feel pleasantly permeates the physical production. Maggie Morgan’s attractive mix of jeans, boots and blouses in period silhouette evokes the kind of attire thesps don to keep themselves in the appropriate mood, while Tom Buderwitz’s rough-hewn wood set seems just days away from the real panoply’s installation.
A run-through wouldn’t employ Michael Gilliam’s elaborate lighting, but his light plot is a major contributor to the evening’s success, the first act’s blissful pastel glow giving way to act two’s ominous shadows of palace intrigue and obsession.