by Ann Greer
“Camelot” is one of my favorite musicals. First, there’s the music – the title song, of course, along with “C’est Moi,” “Before I Gaze at You Again” (a staple of my performing days), and “If Ever I Would Leave You,” among others. Then there’s the story of a principled leader, King Arthur, who succeeds with his Round Table in bringing peace and enlightenment to his country, if only for a short time.
Also, I admit as a girl to having a crush on Richard Harris, who played King Arthur on film and stage. But beyond the doomed love triangle of King Arthur, his Queen Guenevere, and his bravest knight Lancelot du Lac, which I focused on as a teenager, there is a theme having to do with how people behave towards each other, particularly how leaders set the tone for discourse and action.
Actor Ken Clark is not Harris’s King Arthur, and I’m glad of it. Clark and director Alan Paul have fashioned a fully realized king, who moves from callow youth through loving husband and admired monarch to defeated warrior, albeit with a glimmer of hope. Clark, who also played the role at Chicago’s Drury Lane Theatre in a production he describes as a darker, “Game of Thrones” take on the material, says he was eager to play the role in DC.
“In the initial audition, Alan talked about wanting to highlight themes that make the show work today, like fighting against our baser natures. We live in a time when aggression and violence sell. It’s very impactful to show how easily that can get out of hand,” Clark says.
Lerner and Loewe drew inspiration for their Arthurian musical from T.H. White’s book “The Once and Future King.” Clark has read the book many times, starting when he was 11. He also watched the animated Disney movie “The Sword in the Stone,” based on the first part of White’s book, repeatedly. What he first perceived as an adventure story became, as he got older, an allegory of how to behave in the world.
“This is going to sound sappy, but this guy King Arthur is really good, and we want to take his ideas and apply them to the real world. That will fascinate us for a long time,” Clark says.
“Camelot" is playing at the Shakespeare Theatre through July 8. Tickets are available at shakespearetheatre.org or by calling 202-544-1122.
Ann Greer has covered culture in the DC region for The Washington Post, Capitol File magazine, and WAMU-FM, among others. She was the first online theater critic in the DC region, for AOL Digital City Washington.