Doug Carpenter, Shannon Stoeke and Shannon Warne
in Camelot
(© Craig Schwartz)
Doug Carpenter, Shannon Stoeke and Shannon Warne
in Camelot
(© Craig Schwartz)
In musicals, story often becomes diminished by spectacle. But take away those bells and whistles, as in the case of director David Lee's refreshing new adaptation of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot at the Pasadena Playhouse, and character, nuance, and imagination have room to thrive. With the usual pageantry and grand displays of royalty stripped away, the show is now focused most squarely on human interests: relationships, love, and the deceptions people resort to in order to get the relationships and love they want.

We may not be as supremely self-absorbed as the perfection-seeking Lancelot (Doug Carpenter) or as awkwardly insecure as the inexperienced Arthur (Shannon Stoeke) attempting to woo lovely, flirty Guenevere (Shannon Warne) in the woods. But we understand them and their motives because Lee and his exceptional cast make clear the workings of their hearts.

This Camelot is presentational in form. Characters step forward to confide thoughts and concerns to the audience, and at the top of the overture-less show several players announce the story: "The Amorous and Glorious Tale of King Arthur and Queen Guenevere, and What Befell Them." Lee's adaptation also restores a lost youthfulness to the story by casting younger, age-appropriate actors.

The entire cast (of only eight performers) is uniformly strong, but the doomed lovers are especially outstanding. Carpenter's rich operatic voice adds credence to Lancelot's air of superiority, and he sets skin to tingling during the heartfelt "If Ever I Would Leave You." Warne is an earthier Guenevere than is usually portrayed, and in both voice and attitude she proves that lustiness extends far beyond the month of May. And it's pure pleasure to watch Stoeke's Arthur grow from the vulnerable, uncertain youth who is "ill at ease in my crown" to the wiser, more considered "civilized man" he becomes.

Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz has created an impressive series of platforms built from rough-hewn wooden planks and poles, lashed together with rope and escalating in height. A pair of chairs crafted in a similar medieval style becomes royal thrones, and a few small wooden tables and benches are easily re-configured to create other furnishings. Many of the minimal props also have multiple uses, such as the long swath of gauzy white material attached to Guenevere's crown like a wedding veil becoming a screen on which lighting designer Michael Gilliam projects the swirling fiery inferno that is her deadly punishment for treason.

While Act I is virtually flawless, Act II feels a bit jagged. With the abrupt introduction of Arthur's scheming illegitimate son Mordred (played with wicked glee by Will Bradley), the discovery of Guenevere's tryst with Lancelot, and the ensuing war and collapse of Camelot, it's as if there is suddenly too much story left to tell and not enough time to tell it. If there is any chink in the armor it is this fixable point. But oh, how brightly that armor otherwise shines.