By JOHN DeMERS
Each night that Robert Petkoff steps onto the Hobby Center stage to portray King Arthur in Camelot, he has some intimidating royal shoes to fill. After all, Richard Burton handled the role on Broadway early in his career and returned to it late in life, and honey-voiced Richard Harris looked sufficiently wounded to handle the close-ups in the big-budget movie version. Both men were exemplary British actors, and Harris sang compellingly enough to later enjoy his own Top 40 hit slipping and sliding through the notes of “MacArthur Park.”
In the new Theatre Under The Stars production, Petkoff shows himself unintimidated by (though apparently aware of) his predecessors. One of the tricks of staging a classic like Camelot, it seems, is being a little different from what came before but – under pain of death – never too different. Petkoff’s acting is convincing and likable (a big deal when you have to balance idealism with a personality that’s as likely to call for “Merlin!” as some scared, immature men might call out for “Mama!”) By the time Petkoff’s Arthur has created Camelot as an unprecedented kingdom of law and civility, and especially by the time he has loved and lost his queen to his favorite knight, he makes sure we care deeply about what happens to this guy.
Long before Broadway had “songbook” or “jukebox” musicals, Lerner and Loewe pretty much gave us one in Camelot. It’s just that they wrote all the songs. We already can hum most of them, from the title ditty that’s so well used at the start and again, so movingly, at the end to the lovely, often-overlooked “How to Handle a Woman.” “C’est Moi,” a love poem by Lancelot to himself, reminds us just how smart and acerbic Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics could be and how little new was needed to create Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Still, as though in penance for having too much fun at his expense, the creators give Lance “If Ever I Would Leave You,” which original knight Robert Goulet was probably still singing on his deathbed.
There are magnificent moments throughout this Camelot, directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford with a set and some costumes from the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, and many of the best happen when Arthur and his Guenevere are onstage together. From their endearing accidental meeting in the forest (yes, Arthur is hiding from his future bride while Guenevere is running away from her future husband!) through their almost-mutual creation of the kingdom to their almost-shared suffering as it all comes crashing down, Petkoff and Margaret Robinson are wonderful together. Her singing of the “Julie Andrews songs” like “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “The Lusty Month of May” and especially “I Loved You Once in Silence,” is terrific as well.
As Lancelot, Sean MacLaughlin brings less physical heft to the role than some others but makes up for it with his rich, rounded baritone singing, while in Act II Adam Shonkwiler is Lance’s virtual evil twin as Arthur’s bastard son Mordred, who hates and sets out to destroy the lofty notions Camelot is built upon. Though all of the show features dashes of wry humor, two important roles run on the stuff: Merlin as played by local veteran Charles Krohn and old King Pellinore portrayed by Broadway’s Tony Sheldon. All in all, the humor is perfectly balanced with romance and tragedy in this production, and the whole thing moves along briskly. After all, you really never want “one brief shining moment” to feel like it goes on forever.
TUTS Photo by Bruce Bennett