For anyone who’s ever suffered “desire without hope” or bemoaned the death of idealism, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot offers a musical palliative.
President John F. Kennedy was a fan of the 1960 Broadway show, based on the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. After his 1963 assassination, his widow, Jackie Kennedy, helped fashion the myth of the Kennedy administration as a “brief shining moment” in history akin to Camelot.
The musical itself, by the creators of My Fair Lady, is a surprisingly complicated and satisfying work. A skillful mixture of light and dark, it celebrates political idealism while exploring the human passions and vices that undermine it. Its first act, when the characters are youthful and callow, is delightfully comic. Its second act advances a tragic view of human nature, twinning personal maturation with political disillusionment.
Under Matt Pfeiffer’s direction, the scaled down but stirring production at Act II Playhouse in Ambler gets the emotional balance right. And the glorious score – including “If Ever I Would Leave You,” “I Loved You Once in Silence” and, of course, the frequently reprised title number – shines, thanks to a superb trio of singing actors.
Philadelphia favorite Jeffrey Coon, with his powerful baritone, is a worthy King Arthur, worrying equally about the burdens of kingship and his restless bride, Guenevere (Eileen Cella). Guenevere at first tries to hide her attraction to the French knight Lancelot (Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton) beneath a jaunty antagonism. And Lancelot seems on initial meeting (in the song “C’est Moi”) like the shallowest of egomaniacs, exulting in his own physical and spiritual perfection.
But their long-suppressed love pares away their egotism, even as it threatens both Guenevere’s marriage to Arthur and Lancelot’s vow of fidelity to the king. Cella’s soprano evokes Julie Andrews, who originated the role, but with an extra vein of humor. Toniazzo-Naughton evolves convincingly from braggart to tortured lover, and offers a gorgeous rendition of Lancelot’s signature number, “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
Enumerating “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and leading the knights to declare “Fie on Goodness!,” Luke Bradt, as the viperous Mordred, exudes negative charisma. Scott Langdon ably portrays both Merlyn, the magician who tutored young Arthur, and Pellinore, the idiosyncratic king who battles Arthur in chess.
Don’t come to Act II expecting spectacle: The playing space is small, and Adam Riggar’s scenic design of vertical wooden planks, suggesting a fence, and a circular platform, emblematic of the fabled Round Table, is serviceable rather than stunning. Ditto Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes, which juxtapose contemporary outfits with medieval-seeming tunics and breastplates for the men and red velvet for Guenevere. Music director Dan Matarazzo performs the piano accompaniment in lieu of an orchestra, sacrificing some musical richness.
But the theater’s intimacy allows for unamplified vocals and raises the emotional stakes of the piece, with its combustive romantic triangle and unstable magical kingdom of unicorns, fairies and jousting knights. Love betrayed, political promise dashed – Camelot’s themes have aged well, and Act II’s staging does them justice.
Through June 24 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler.