“‘Camelot’ isn’t limited to the past. It isn’t limited in any capacity. It relies on people being committed to the cause and believing firmly that something great can be achieved if you try for it.”
These words from the Columbia Musical Theater Society’s’ “Camelot” director, Hannah Rubenstein, BC ’21, also held true to the commitment of the cast and crew of last weekend’s production, performed in Columbia’s Lerner Black Box Theatre.
While the selection of this particular musical could have been risky, the decision-making of the creative team redeemed any potentially dated elements. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1960 musical “Camelot” received some mixed reviews at its first performance, especially for its long run time of four and a half hours. However, CMTS adapted the script to last just over two and a half hours.
The plot tells the story of King Arthur, played by Jane Watson, CC ’22; his wife Queen Guinevere, played by Sophia Houdaigui, BC ’21; and Sir Lancelot, played by Chad Arle, CC ’21, and their attempt to create a new political court known as the Knights of the Round Table.
The affair that develops between Guinevere and Lancelot must eventually be confronted by Arthur, leaving Arthur to choose between upholding the laws against infidelity and staying true to his love for his wife. Although the musical is ultimately a tragedy, witty humor is at the forefront of both the script and the score’s lyrics.
Rubenstein had envisioned CMTS's production as far back as a year ago. She credited her lifelong love of “Camelot” to pop-culture interpretations of Arthurian tales—Disney’s 1963 “The Sword in the Stone,” the 1967 film version of “Camelot,” and the Kinks’ 1969 album, “Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire).” In this adaptation, Rubenstein used the complicated moral and intellectual conflicts to create her own unique interpretation for CMTS.
“I had a vision for it where I wanted to set it in the modern time and make it essentially a modern American political drama,” Rubenstein said.
Modern elements were echoed in the cast’s contemporary props, such as the occasional iPhone, handgun, and clothing, including ties, blazers, and jumpers for Guinevere. The modernization of props and costumes was perhaps cliché but nonetheless tied into Rubenstein’s vision to emphasize the timelessness of the overarching political and social commentary in the plot itself.
“This [was the] idea of this optimistic, idealistic political leader who attempts to create something that includes more voices and allows for democracy to flourish and then it all sort of falls to shit. We didn’t need anyone to do an Obama or Trump impersonation for the political relevance to be evident,” Rubenstein said.
At the heart of “Camelot” are the relationships between Arthur, Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot. Each member of this triad holds a deep love for the others, and yet their actions spin them further and further into tragedy.
Watson, Arle, and Houdaigui were distinctly successful in capturing the evolution of these relationships through musical numbers. In “If Ever I Would Leave You,” Lancelot confronts the fragility and potential danger existing within his relationship with Guinevere in an intimate and thoughtful serenade, which Arle performed with chivalry and gentleness.
In her debut portrayal of King Arthur, Watson was both endearing and fittingly complicated. She navigated the role with confidence, fully embracing the “Peter Pan-like” qualities of a king whose well-meaning naïveté prevents him from fully growing up.
However, the three leads would not have been able to perform to such a high level without the bolstering of the six-person ensemble that came to stage in plot-moving musical numbers such as “The Jousts” and “Guinevere.” The spirit and commitment of the ensemble demonstrated the broader cohesion and dynamism of the performance as a whole.
Even with the best of talent and resources, “Camelot” is an ambitious musical for a college theater group to take on; the script has an extraordinarily long and complex plot stuffed with action, tension, and character dimension. What begins as a lighthearted comedy switches quickly and without warning to a deeply upsetting and tragic dilemma.
While there were a few technical glitches in the performance, such as miscued lighting and dropped props, the evident passion and eagerness with which the musical was performed smoothed over any wrinkles. It was clear that each movement and facial expression had been carefully thought through to reflect Rubenstein’s vision and to amplify a universal message.
“[‘Camelot’ is] a beautiful idea of this one brief shining moment,” Rubenstein said. “The product of this vision of a government that could be a voice for all people; where a round table could exist and there would be no head. Where all voices could come together and be heard and be listened to.”