FORT WORTH -- Don't expect the same ol' same ol' with New York-based director Gabriel Barre, and that's true of his staging of Camel ot for Casa Mañana.
The 1960 Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner musical, taken from T.H. White's King Arthur tale in The Once and Future King, is loaded with some of Broadway's best songs, but it has not always been easy to dust the mustiness from its castle walls.
Not here. Barre has some magic to do
You have to be creative under Casa's dome, where the stage's lack of fly space limits the ability for mammoth sets and relying on spectacle for chills and thrills. Scenic designer Katie Dill dominates the stage with the craggy tree whose main branch resembles the business end of a scorpion, on which King Arthur (Bradley Dean) and other characters sit and think -- or eavesdrop. Like the Arthurian story, it takes on a mystical air.
Playing with the idea of magic doesn't stop there. Seemingly inspired by another musical that deals with a medieval story, Pippin, Barre's production of Camelot reminds us that we are watching a theatrical production -- and some of the characters are aware that they're in one.
For one, Clayton Slee, the actor playing young Tom of Warwick, who is urged at the end to begin a new legend, also doubles as the wizard Merlyn, a role usually reserved for an older actor. Before each act, Slee cues the theatrical magic -- the lights, orchestra (conducted, terrifically, by Edward G. Robinson). More notable in Barre's concept is the way the antagonist, Mordred (Keith Merrill), is handled. That trick won't be spoiled here; but during the first act, it had audience members scratching their heads. Also, he adds a unicorn (the balletic Alyssa Robbins). Can't get more fantasy than that.
Guess what? It works.
In this musical, Arthur is a flawed man, bound together as much with self-doubt as with bravery, charm and luck; he's as surprised as anyone at the fates that came together for him to be in his position. The notion that the quest for greatness will continue after him is always in his mind, so for him to hope for a way out is an interesting concept.
Dean, as expressive with his eyes as with any of his other gifts, bears this out with a beautifully played arc. He dazzles in the vocal department, too. Rightly, Nili Bassman as Guenevere and Josh Tower as Lancelot have prettier voices, but the spark between them is missing, which is unfortunate. But she is lovely in her scenes with Arthur.
David Coffee does his usual scene-stealing routine as Pellinore, and if you thought he'd be the no-brainer choice for the famous wizard (those two roles are sometimes doubled), then Barre has done his job. He has not only directed a fantastic production of Camelot; he has surprised us with a warhorse that, for some, was out of surprises.