The quest for a perfect society is illusive, yet one that has been pursued by countless civilizations throughout history. While some lofty ideals persist from earlier times, more often than not it’s the ashes of failed civilizations that lie scattered around the world, providing constant evidence of the insurmountable byproducts that Utopian dreams so often produce.
In terms of dreams turning to dust, this past year and a half has felt like the ultimate cautionary tale. A global pandemic, climate change and armed conflicts around the world have been complicated at home by contentious battles for power and social upheavals that speak of unsettled times.
But upheaval also provides fertile ground for reflection and renewal, and at the end of a stressful period of pain and despair, a bit of levity to cheer the soul goes a long way.
It’s been quite a while since we’ve been able to gather together for a night of live theater, which is probably why on Saturday, when the lights rose on the set of “Camelot,” Bay Street Theater’s newest production, there was a palpable feeling of anticipation in the air along with a collective sigh of relief. After all, it’s been two years since Bay Street presented its last musical — “Annie Get Your Gun” in August 2019 — and even though a mask mandate hid the faces of those in attendance this past weekend, there were no doubt many grins present underneath.
With a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, “Camelot,” of course, is the timeless tale of the court of King Arthur, the mythical, medieval, ruler who dabbled in magic and sought to alter the status quo power structure that dictated the use of violence to settle disputes. Instead, Arthur, with the blessing of his queen, Guenevere, sets out to create a society in which justice and compassion reign and differences are settled, not by violent armed battle, but by courts of law. With the support of the Knights of the Roundtable, might for right is the creed in “Camelot.”
But complications soon arise when Guenevere falls in love with Lancelot, Arthur’s favorite knight and best friend, while others in the court witness their indiscretions. Meanwhile, Arthur’s illegitimate son, Mordred, appears on the scene to rile the masses, divide the knights and test Arthur’s commitment to justice using his own wife and best friend as a test case.
Bay Street’s production of the musical, which is directed with great skill by the theater’s very capable artistic director Scott Schwartz, is being offered outdoors in a relatively secluded Bridgehampton field. Though the occasional summer siren can be heard wailing nearby on Route 27, it is, nonetheless, a magical setting that is perfect for the legendary tale, especially when the wind whips up, as if on cue. Wisteria vines dominate Andrew Diaz’s rustic, multi-level, timber frame set, while the five-person band, under direction of conductor Matt Hinckley, is tucked neatly behind the structure where the action is concentrated. Though it’s hard to see the band performing during the show, the music itself has a starring role, anchored, as it is, by an eclectic and unexpected collection of instruments, including banjo and mandolin, offering a clever and decidedly Appalachian-inspired twist on the familiar Broadway pit orchestra. Rounding out the production team is lighting designer Michael Billings, costume designer Meghan O’Beirne and sound designer Shaughn Bryant, whose collective work supports the effort to great effect.
In terms of the main action, front and center in this musical is actor Jeremy Kushnier, who offers a convincingly well-rounded portrayal of King Arthur, a ruler looking to transform society, albeit with a fair bit of self-doubt. With classic songs like “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight” and “Camelot,” Kushnier has two of the show’s most enduring numbers, and he does a fine job with them, handling the role with skill. Also doing an admirable turn in the role of the vain, yet powerful Sir Lancelot is the well-cast Deven Kolluri, an actor who treads the line of his character’s humor, ego and passion with skill. His rendition of “If Ever I Would Leave You” is another memorable moment that evokes a sense of nostalgia for the show. But it’s Guenevere, played by Britney Coleman, who really shines in this production. Coleman is vivacious, confident and energetic in the role, and her singing talents unite the entire cast. Also impressive is the very capable Aaron Dalla Villa who, as the aptly named Mordred, brings an underhanded confidence to “Camelot’s” second act. His dance skills are a highlight (a nod to choreographer Marcos Santana) and what he’s able to pull off in a relatively small space is impressive indeed.
Supporting the lead roles are Amaya Grier as Tom of Warwick and ensemble members Kyle Lopez Barisich, Hope Hamilton, James Harkness, David LaMarr and Cecelia Ticktin. It’s worth noting that Hamilton, a senior at the Ross School, is the daughter of Emma Walton Hamilton and Stephen Hamilton, who co-founded Bay Street Theater 30 years ago, while her grandmother, Julie Andrews, originated the role of Guenevere when the musical debuted on Broadway in 1960.
Which brings us full circle. Having an opportunity to see a professionally produced production of “Camelot” outdoors is pure joy. As enjoyable as a night out at the theater is for those of us who have been living largely in isolation since early 2020, the ultimate question for our time is, does this play resonate given the myriad of difficulties that grip the world today? “Camelot” was said to have been President John F. Kennedy’s favorite musical, and following her husband’s assassination in 1963, Jackie Kennedy referenced it as such in an interview with Life magazine. While the message of building an ideal society is quite admirable, does it ring true, given all we’ve witnessed?
The fact is, “Camelot” may have been an easy comparison to make given real life politics in the early ’60s, but much has conspired in the more than six decades since the musical premiered on Broadway.
As a piece, is “Camelot” a production chock-full of profound messaging that speaks to us from across the generations? Not exactly, but it’s certainly worth revisiting, if not for guidance, than for comfort.
In King Arthur, we meet a ruler striving for a Utopian vision of the world in which justice, compassion and a fair court system replace the bloody battles that historically defined how disagreements were settled. But from our perch well into the 21st century, in the midst of a pandemic, with wars raging around the world and on the heels of a contentious election followed by an assault on the nation’s capital by those who would seek to overthrow its results, we know first-hand the price of our vision of democracy. Despite what we were raised to believe, we also know too well that truth and justice don’t always prevail and the ways in which courts can, and often do, fail those they were originally designed to champion.
Alas, in our kingdom, the subjects are jaded and while King Arthur may be earnest, he is ultimately a rather naïve sovereign. Given what we can’t unsee as citizens of 2021, it’s probably best to approach this production of “Camelot,” not as a harbinger of how we hope society will one day be, but rather, recognize it for what it is — an idyllic and wonderful look back at a much less complicated time when there was simply not a more congenial spot for happy every aftering than there in Camelot.
“Camelot” runs through August 29 outdoors under the stars at 2011 Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton, in the field across from the Bridgehampton Commons for a limited audience of 200 with health and safety guidelines in place. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Tickets start at $45 and are available at baystreet.org or by calling 631-725-9500. In case of inclement weather, ticket buyers will be notified and given first opportunity to rebook a future date, apply the funds to another show, or offered a refund.