Burning Coal Theatre Company’s production of Camelot breathes modern life into the beloved tale of love, chivalry, and the power of ideas, in a way that is both inspiring and timely. Lerner and Loewe’s classic 1960 Broadway musical might easily be seen as passé in our current technological world, but it doesn’t take long to discover that the chaos of pre-Arthurian England is not so out of step with our own bipartisan struggles here in the New World.
The show opens with a trio of youths reading about Arthur and Merlin, directly from the storybooks. A raised platform in the round fills the space, garnished with ladders that allow the actors to utilize the height of Burning Coal’s stage in a way that is clever enough to feel slightly underutilized.
The orchestra has been stripped down to a three-piece band, allowing the music (directed by Mo Ortbal) to be re-imagined with bluesy, jazzy, and occasionally rock-and-roll overtones. Microphones set about the stage come into occasional use, for emphasis in song and dialect, by turns; and Chris Popowich’s dynamic lighting contributes greatly to the show without being distracting .
Burning Coal founding artistic director Jerome Davis’ staging makes great use of the space, moving actors all throughout the balcony and floor areas. Costuming (by Stacey Harrison) is a clever blend of modern articles, integrated with period pieces, keeping the old-and-modern aesthetic that permeates this production.
A musical transition from the prologue brings out Arthur (Galen Murphy-Hoffman) and Merlin (Julie Oliver), both anxiously awaiting their fates. Murphy-Hoffman’s giddy Arthur is full of boyish apprehension at the approach of his betrothed queen-to-be, and Merlin dreads the impending doom of being snared by the invisible fairy sorceress Morgan Le Fay.
Oliver’s Merlin is cryptic and flustered, trying to instill as much wisdom in his protégé before Merlin’s memory of the future is erased. Alas, Merlin vanishes before he can fully warn Arthur of what lies in store.
Arthur, perched high in a tree, overhears Guenevere trying to run from her fate. Their paths cross; and despite initial misgivings, they fall in love and are properly wed. Natalie Reder as Guenevere is a fine little songbird, although she seemed to lack some chemistry with both of her leading men. For all is not perfect in fair Camelot — this utopia of chivalry and honor draws Lancelot, a French knight whose flawless personal accomplishments is marred only by an apparent lack of humility.
Tyler Graeper as Lancelot is a tall drink of water, indeed, and just charming enough to pull off the character without making him insufferable. (“C’Est Moi” deftly avoids coming off as a narcissist’s anthem). Lancelot initially clashes with Guenevere, as well as much of the Court, while instantly becoming fast friends with Arthur.
As the story unfolds, the tension between Guenevere and Lancelot evolves into something else entirely, and the love triangle that ensues sets up the fall of all that is great in Camelot. Mordred (Shawn Morgenlander), the bastard offspring of a long-ago tryst of Arthur’s youth, plays the main trio against each other until he brings the whole kingdom crumbling down.
This feat would have been unlikely without the help of Morgan Le Fay (played with show-stealing veracity by a delightfully wicked AC Donahue), who has indeed captured Merlin and kept his sage advice from Arthur when he needed it most.
Another honorable mention among the rest of the cast is Lee Jean, Jr., who capitalizes on some impeccable comedic timing as Lancelot’s page. His dulcet singing voice narrates some essential parts of the story that happen offstage.
Under Jerome Davis’ direction, the love story is refreshingly not the central focus of the show. The real meat of this production is in the musings of Arthur himself, whose delightful guilelessness give his “propositions” and deep personal ponderings that much more weight. Arthur came into his kingdom by magic and fate, not ambition or agenda. So, he sees the chaos of war and the cost of divisiveness for what it is and earnestly seeks to make things right. As he is uniquely positioned to do so, he dreams up the idea of “Might for Right” — using power to do good, for both noble and peasant.
Instead of fighting amongst each other, Arthur invites ower knights to work for the people, instead of against them. His Round Table makes all the knights equal in vision, status, and mission. And it works — for a while.
As the vision begins to flicker and fumble through betrayal and deceit, Act 2 reveals how relevant this story is for our modern day. As America sits on the edge of an election cycle, watching Galen Murphy-Hoffman dig deep into Arthur’s heartbreak and devastation is immensely resonant. For Arthur is not just losing his beloved wife and friend, but he’s losing the dream of everyone working together for a beautiful, bounteous, and peaceful world. For Arthur, it wasn’t just a dream — for a little while, it was reality. And watching it slip away had this reviewer moved to tears by the end.
But all is not lost. The final moments of the show before Arthur’s final battle — when the king encounters a young boy named Tom of Warwick, dubs him Sir Tom, and tells him to flee — are full of hope that at least the idea of Camelot will survive — it will spread far and wide through the mouths and minds and hearts of the youth, who refuses to believe that such a world is impossible. Friends, that dream lives on today. Although America can hardly be called a Camelot, it is still a land where ideas and ideals are allowed to thrive. Here’s hoping that the message of this show — that a united world that fights for equality, peace, freedom, and justice is not out of reach — continues to spread.
Our current Sir Toms have more than just their legs to carry forth the vision; with all the Internet and social-media platforms at their fingertips, what will they make of their world? Let them use it wisely, and without fear of the future — for the future is truly in their hands.
SECOND OPINION: Dec. 6th Raleigh, NC CVNC review Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9660; and Dec. 4th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/camelot-burning-coal-theatre-company/.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents CAMELOT at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7th, 2 p.m. Dec. 8th, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 and 13, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14, 2 p.m. Dec. 15, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19 and 20, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21, and 2 p.m. Dec. 22 in Murphey School Auditorium, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.
TICKETS: $25 ($15 students, teachers, and active-duty military personnel and $20 seniors 65+), except “Pay-What-You-Can” Day on Sunday, Dec. 8th, $5 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain), $15 Thursdays, and $15 per person for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001 or https://burningcoal.secure.force.com/.
SHOW: https://burningcoal.org/camelot-by-lerner-loewe/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/991309414567134/.
STUDY GUIDE: https://burningcoal.org/wp-content/uploads/Camelot-Study-Guide.pdf.
2019-20 SEASON: https://burningcoal.org/2019-2020-season/.
PRESENTER: http://www.burningcoal.org/, https://www.facebook.com/Burning.Coal.Theatre, and https://twitter.com/burningcoaltc.
NOTE 1:The 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8th, show is a “Pay-What-You-Can” Performance.
NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8th, performance.
NOTE 3: There will be a talkback with Durham Symphony music director and conductor William Henry Curry, following the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15th, performance.
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She has studied acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA; and she now trains locally with Lynda Clark (stage), Daryl Ray Carlisle (film/commercial), and Rebekah Holland (voice). Simmons has performed at Raleigh Little Theatre in Raleigh, Forest Moon Theater in Wake Forest, Stageworks Theatre in Holly Springs, and many others. She is represented by Talent One Agency in Raleigh. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.