“Camelot,” now playing at Arena Stage, features mediocre songs but long-lasting themes. Written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (“My Fair Lady”), the play offers two pleasant hours of sorcerers, love triangles and underhanded scheming weaved into dialogue and musical lyrics, but as a whole it is not a spectacular theatrical experience. Still, it has come to symbolize the brief presidency of John F. Kennedy. Widowed only a week, Jacqueline Kennedy revealed in an interview that her husband favored the musical, and “Camelot” quickly became synonymous with JFK’s term in the White House.
Ties to the Kennedy era are clear, especially since the play is about an all-too-brief period of relative peace, or at least a noble attempt at it. King Arthur laments that might isn’t always right, so his plan is to use might for right. He creates a brotherhood of knights, whom he seats at a round table so that no one could be at the head of it. With Queen Guenevere at his side, things proceed smoothly for a few years, until Arthur’s illegitimate son, Mordred, slyly spins England into a spiral of war. He reveals Guenevere’s passionate love affair with Lancelot, the French knight who has become Arthur’s confidante. In the end, the plot becomes a question of justice that may leave audience members thinking afterward, even if they don’t leave whistling tunes from the show.
While the play itself is not quite fantastic, Arena Stage’s production of it is praiseworthy. Moving commandingly about a beautiful set that extends into audience seating, toward the ceiling and below the stage, Steven Skybell makes Arthur a rich character with as many levels as the set has. Everything about him is opulence – his rich, resonant voice, his passion for peace, his velvet robes. In fact, all the costumes are just as rich and lend an air of authenticity to the medieval story. Dressed in beautiful gowns, Kate Suber (Guenevere) also has a lovely, operatic voice, although her acting ability does not quite match it. These vocal talents are displayed during songs that are less than awe-inspiring, but that detail and all others become irrelevant when Lancelot (Matt Bogart) sings “If Ever I Would Leave You” to Guenevere. Only one word can describe his voice at this moment – perfect. His French accent is decent, but those of the British characters’ oddly fade in and out. Jack, playing Mordred, boasts an impeccable Scottish accent that suits his strong character well. All told, the players and crew at Arena lift “Camelot” to a higher level.
“Camelot” opened at Arena right around the 40th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. The play’s themes resounded in 1963 as much as they do today. Arthur proclaims that violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness – difficult concepts to balance in a more modern and less mythical world than his. “Might for right” is still an issue, and leadership is still called into question every day.
“Camelot” contains several profound and pertinent messages, but they are revealed in dialogue and songs that are just average. It’s worth seeing, but don’t expect it to become your favorite musical.
“Camelot” is playing at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W. (off the Waterfront Metro), through Jan. 4. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $42-$60 or $10 on College Night (Thursday, Dec. 4) and days of performances. Go to www.arenastage.org for more information.