The void created by the demise of the Caldwell Theatre Company is still felt on the local arts scene, but at least artistic director Clive Cholerton’s concerts of musicals have found a home at Palm Beach Dramaworks.
Newly dubbed the Musical Theatre Masters Series, it launched this weekend with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot and other selections appear to be in the offing this summer.
Camelot premiered on Broadway in December of 1960 and has been revived and revised frequently ever since. Based on T.H. White’s Arthurian tales, The Once and Future King, it has a glorious score and a problematic script, which makes it ideal for a concert format.
The story concerns the creation and eventual dissolution of the knights of The Round Table, as seen through the romantic triangle of King Arthur, his Queen Guenevere and his over-achieving knight, Lancelot du Lac. The original production had a cast of over 50 and so many lavish sets that the audience was distracted from the overwritten, episodic book.
At Dramaworks, the cast has been whittled down to 11 and a lovely set of sword-and-sorcery projections suffice as location setters. The reduced company means the choral numbers suffer, but the focus goes to the principals, which is as it should be.
Cholerton imports Michael McKenzie (who appeared in Dangerous and Déjà Vu at the Caldwell) to play Arthur. He has a better than necessary singing voice ― remember that his songs were all tailored to non-singer Richard Burton originally ― and he acts with admirable feeling as the well-meaning monarch in over his head trying to create a legacy of chivalry.
Area veteran ― and Cholerton’s wife ― Margery Lowe trills well as Queen Jenny (a role created by Julie Andrews in Lerner and Loewe’s follow-up musical to My Fair Lady) and conveys the torment of a woman torn between loyalty to her husband and newly kindled passion for a French hunk. Jim Ballard ― the El Gallo in Dramaworks’ recent production of The Fantasticks ― brings a wry sense of humor and booming baritone to Lancelot.
There is plenty of fat in the various versions of the Camelot script and Cholerton has made some crafty cuts, even if they mean losing some of the score as collateral damage. Gone, for instance, is the character of Nimue, who lures away Arthur’s tutor Merlin, so gone too is the lovely Follow Me.
The jousting competition among the knights has been turned into sword duels, which solves a staging challenge, but also means the loss of the descriptive number The Jousts. More understandable are the omissions of Then You May Take Me to the Fair and Fie on Goodness, both dropped from the show after it opened on Broadway, but re-inserted in various revivals. Since the script has been edited, it would have been interesting to hear the entire score, whatever shoehorning that would have required.
Nevertheless, the rest of the songs do sound great, even with the minimal keyboard accompaniment of the nimble Caryl Fantel. (As at the Caldwell, the series really could use a few more musicians.) Camelot is no My Fair Lady, but Lerner and Loewe may never have written songs as lovely as If Ever I Would Leave You, I Loved You Once in Silence and Before I Gaze At You Again.
The supporting cast includes area resident Barrie Ingham, who dodders amusingly as Pellinore (a role he played on Broadway) and doubles as the offstage voice of Merlin. Michael Focas, a Cholerton discovery who made his professional debut in the Caldwell’s final production, Working, handles the abbreviated role of Arthur’s bastard son Mordred ably. And fourth grader Casey Butler nails the role of Tom of Warwick, in the final scene which still brings a lump to the throat.
The matinee audience I attended was completely sold out, which suggests that Dramaworks is onto something with this series. Sure, its subscribers have a taste for heady drama, but they’ll also come out for a good old musical.
CAMELOT, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday. Tickets: $35. Call: (561) 514-4042.