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STAGE REVIEW

Trinity Rep digs deeper for ‘Camelot’

Joe Wilson Jr. as Lancelot in Trinity Repertory Company’s production of Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot.’’ Joe Wilson Jr. as Lancelot in Trinity Repertory Company’s production of Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot.’’ (Mark Turek)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 18, 2010

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PROVIDENCE — After “Monty Python’s Spamalot,’’ is there any way to present a straightforward production of “Camelot’’ — knights in shining armor, demurely veiled maidens, all the other medieval foofaraw — without triggering widespread snickering and eye-rolling?

Probably not.

So Trinity Repertory Company artistic director Curt Columbus may have had little choice but to come up with a different approach to the venerable Lerner and Loewe musical. However, Columbus has made a theatrical virtue out of that necessity by creating a first-class production of “Camelot’’ that puts new giddyup in the old warhorse.

With a big assist from Trinity’s resident set designer, the ingenious Eugene Lee (whose handiwork can also be seen in “Wicked,’’ at the Opera House), Columbus transplants “Camelot’’ from the usual mythical realm to a London tube station during World War II. More specifically, it is set at the height of the Blitz, when Nazi warplanes rained bombs on the city for months.

Anchoring “Camelot’’ in that kind of life-and-death reality helps to clear away the cobwebs that have accumulated on this musical since it premiered on Broadway 50 years ago. The musty themes of duty, honor, love, betrayal, and the difficulties of achieving civil law (King Arthur’s abiding quest) gain a fresh urgency when they are set against a mortal threat to civilization itself.

It helps, too, that the love triangle at the center of Trinity Rep’s “Camelot’’ is embodied by three lively and quick-witted performers: Stephen Thorne as Arthur; Rebecca Gibel as his queen, Guenevere; and Joe Wilson Jr. as Sir Lancelot, who finds that his passion for Guenevere is reciprocated.

The premise here is that a band of Londoners, having sought shelter in a tube station, decide to put on a performance of “Camelot,’’ presumably to boost the morale of their fellow citizens (a role implicitly played by the audience). Costume designer William Lane has garbed the cast in snazzy 1940s clothing — maybe a little too snazzy, given that these are supposed to be war-weary Brits who have been cooped up in that tube station for a while, to judge by the bunk beds, furniture, and trunks strewn across the stage.

From the top bunk bed, a fellow in an argyle sweater emerges, and he turns out to be none other than King Arthur. As played by Thorne, he has little of the internalized, brooding quality we associate with the film performance by Richard Harris and the Broadway turn by Richard Burton. This Arthur is amiable, eager to please, and somewhat sheepish about the power he wields.

Of course, given the down-at-heels context of this “Camelot,’’ his majesty has trouble being magisterial. When he launches into “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?’’ Thorne brandishes a golf club rather than a sword. When he sings the title song to Guenevere and arrives at the line “Heeere in Camelot,’’ Arthur shows milady a snow globe, turning it upside down to reveal the tiny castle within.

Wilson, so memorable as the Emcee in Trinity Rep’s production of “Cabaret’’ last year, energizes any stage he steps onto — or, in the case of “Camelot,’’ roars up to on a motorcycle. His Lancelot is a Gallic popinjay who, during a hilarious, showstopping rendition of “C’est Moi,’’ offers to let the ladies touch his biceps and autographs large photos of himself that he just happens to have with him.

Columbus, the director, is creative in finding distinctive yet efficient ways to stage what are usually big set pieces in “Camelot.’’ In “The Jousts,’’ for example, when Lancelot dispatches several knights in quick succession (and wins Guenevere’s heart by bringing one back from near-death), the scene is played as a sports contest narrated on a radio, play-by-play style.

Without overly italicizing the point, Columbus finds ways to suggest the power of theater to sustain the human spirit in times of adversity. When a rollicking rendition of “The Lusty Month of May’’ is interrupted by bombs, Gibel and the ensemble join hands defiantly to reprise a refrain from the song. Even, or maybe especially, during wartime, this “Camelot’’ says, the show must go on.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

CAMELOT

Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe. Directed by: Curt Columbus. Sets and lights, Eugene Lee. Costumes, William Lane. Sound, Peter Sasha Hurowitz. Choreography, Sharon Jenkins. Musical direction, Michael Rice. At: Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, through Oct. 10. Tickets: $12-$66. 401-351-4242, www.trinityrep.com