By Mark Dreisonstok
The Riverside Center for the Performing Arts in Fredericksburg is currently presenting Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical “Camelot,” but with a twist: it actually tells the stories of two Camelots! The first is the story of King Arthur and his knights at the round table of medieval times, while the second is the story of the John F. Kennedy presidency. The Kennedy era is often referred to as “Camelot” due to how the young, charismatic U.S. president inspired young people with a hopeful view of the future, and how the president and his wife, Jacqueline, brought a sense of elegance and urbanity to the White House. Also, President Kennedy was also a fan of the musical “Camelot.”
The scenes from the two Camelots, one medieval and the other modern, are interleaved, with most of the show given to the traditional musical. Yet as the play begins, we are treated to clips of Kennedy speeches, as well as him appearing with his wife and children, and an on-stage prop of John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame at Arlington National Cemetery. Soon, however, we shift over to the Arthurian tale, but with occasional flash forwards to moments in Washington, D.C., of the early 1960s.
This approach provides the production with a bit of an experimental feel, but tempered by traditional, and thoroughly excellent, “Camelot”-the-musical segments which make up most of the show. This production of the Arthurian tale is a royal treat! Christopher Sanders shines in authority and brandishes charisma as the legendary King Arthur, ever trying to bring civilized rule to medieval England where warfare is sadly the norm. Quinn Vogt-Welch brings charm, petulance, and engaging independence to the role of Guinevere, Arthur’s beautiful Queen and the soon-to-be lover of Lancelot. For his part, Virginia-raised Travis Keith Battle is energetic and exuberant as Lancelot, striving to balance loyalty to Arthur with his passion for Guinevere. A particularly striking and enjoyably serpent-like performance is given by Michael Goltry as Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son and all-around bad seed. Of Mordred, the King says: “The adage ‘blood is thicker than water’ was invented by undeserving relatives,” reminding us of the humor of the play’s take on Arthurian legend.
The singing in the production is first rate. Mr. Battle gives a powerful performance of “If Ever I Would Leave You,” the show-stopper of “Camelot.” The Vogt-Welch vocal treatment of the Lerner-Loewe score is particularly brilliant, as the singer/actress brings wondrous vocal range to the part of Guinevere; in “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” she channels occasionally the cadence and R.P. accent of Julie Andrews, who originated the part on Broadway. Mr. Goltry is wickedly charming as he sings and dances “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and “Fie on Goodness.” The excellent eight-piece orchestra is conducted superbly by Carson Eubank.
Perhaps the true star of the production, however, is the concept of presenting the musical “Camelot” in juxtaposition with the Camelot vision of a young, vigorous JFK and the idealism he inspired among young people. Here the production takes a less-is-more approach: while video clips are shown from noteworthy moments of the Kennedy presidency which bring to mind the feeling of that era, it is left up to the audience members as to how to map these events onto the Arthurian story.
All in all, this production offers much to enjoy. The experimentally-minded will appreciate the juxtaposition of the two visions of “Camelot,” one medieval and one modern. Purists will enjoy many things in the production as well, such as the play’s later focus on the historical Sir Thomas Malory, who will keep alive the legend of Camelot in his thick volume of Arthurian lore he is destined to write called “Le Morte d’Arthur.” Also, two productions this reviewer has seen recently of “Camelot” dropped what is arguably the wittiest song of this musical, namely “Take Me to the Fair.” Director Patrick A’Hearn retains this wonderful piece, performed with verve by Guinevere and her talented singing and dancing knights Sir Sagramore (Jarrett Bloom), Sir Dinadin (Cooper McConnell Shaw), and Sir Lionel (Daniel Pippert).
Indeed, the show is riveting, a treat for both eye and ear alike. Mr. A’Hearn’s excellent interpretation (with period costumes by Kyna Chilcot and fabulous scenic design by Frank Foster) will keep even the die-hard “Camelot” fan in suspense, while not alienating or distracting those new to the story and music of “Camelot.” Seen in the right frame of mind, the approach enhances appreciation in the public mind of both the medieval Camelot era and the JFK Camelot era.
Although this ten-actor production is the so-called “small cast production” of the show, there is nothing small about the vision which connects the medieval setting with contemporary American history. The show, with optional dinner beforehand (for Riverside is a dinner theatre), is certainly worth the drive to Fredericksburg. Tickets for the production and dinner can be procured at: riversidedt.com/box-office/