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David Lee’s sparse “Camelot” in Pasadena

January 24, 2010

The legend of King Arthur and the Roundtable is a millennium old. Not quite that long ago – in 1961 – composers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe told the tale of Camelot. Its original Broadway production glittered with pageantry and boasted a cast that would become theatrical royalty – Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet as King Arthur, Lady Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot. But the Broadway version was dense – and ran into the following morning, too long for any audience.

A Pasadena Playhouse production could go by the name “Came-lite.” It offers a condensed version of the legend with only eight actors. David Lee, who co-created, produced, and wrote TV’s Frasier and Wings, directs this contemporary version. I asked David Lee why he took the ‘lot’ out of Camelot.

DL: Over the years, they’ve taken things out and rewritten it but I thought the writing is so stunningly beautiful, and the score is so magnificent, there has to be a more efficient way to tell this tale. So, a couple of years ago, I went through the script, and I took out everything that didn’t have to do with telling the story about Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere.

And what I was left with was still Alan Jay Lerner’s beautiful writing and the vast majority of the score, but I was left with a piece that could be told with only eight actors. And I thought, that’s sort of interesting.

SJ: David Lee took out the extraneous actors and focused it among the action of the three primaries.

DL: And what happened was – and others may disagree – but I found the story more accessible, easier to understand, and therefore ultimately more touching. Because of the economy of the script, I was able to add back in music and songs that are often excised because of the length of the piece.

SJ: Lee made the play more contemporary – with much younger actors.

DL: It’s something I’ve wanted to do with Camelot for a long time because there’s been this trend over the years, and I’m not sure why it’s happened, but Arthur gets played by increasingly older and older men,” said Lee. “In the story of Arthur and Guinevere, he was 22 when they met and she was 17. And his building the Roundtable occurred when he was in his 20s, and much of the story is about Arthur trying to figure out life, and it’s really interesting to watch a 20-year-old guy try to figure out life, and it’s a little sad to see a 60-year-old guy trying to figure out life.

SJ: The story’s a thousand years old but resonates today, doesn’t it?

DL: On its surface, the main story is about ideals coming into conflict with human frailty, that no matter how much you plan things out, no matter how much you think what you’re doing is for the good, you have to add into the equation that it may not work out because people are not perfect.

And there’s another line with Guinevere. When you look at her first song, she talks about the romance of war and how she misses the fact that knights aren’t going to tilt for her, and that kith won’t kill their kin for her, and she really devoutly wants all that excitement and all that romance, and she gets through the course of the play everything she asks for, and she learns that there’s a difference between the romance of war and the romance of knights killing themselves over her, and the reality of that. Those are some big themes, which is why the story keeps getting told over and over and over again.

SJ: “Camelot” runs through Sunday, February 7, at the Pasadena Playhouse.

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