The Gang's All Here

Camelot by Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe Directed by Erich Neher At Dunster House Junior Common Room through Dec. 14

THOUGH THE LEGENDARY Merlin never makes an appearance, there's plenty of theatrical wizardry in Dunster House's Camelot. Director Erich Neher has transformed the lavish 1960 Broadway spectacle into a rather brilliant small-scale production. The lords and ladies of the cast are lively and skillful in all aspects of the show--songs, silly puns, and earnest speeches alike. Their performances, with the help of Neher's wit, create a charming night at the castle.

"Camelot, costalot, cutalot" was how its first Broadway director described his own production. Neher and crew chose to avoid extravagance in favor of a minimalist approach: a single bare set--a platform with a "throne" on one end and a ladder on the other--instead of 16 different sets, a cast pared-down from 28 to just eight, one pianist instead of an orchestra, and less than extravagant costumes. These measures give focus to Camelot's story, nicely highlighting its comic verve and the lusty love triangle between King Arthur, his Queen, Guinevere (usually referred to as Jenny) and Sir Lancelot. The cast conveys such high spirits and passions that their performances overcome any bothersome sense of the play's datedness.

The production opens as Arthur (Jeffrey Korn) prepares for battle against Lancelot, his once-trusted knight who has stolen away with Jenny. Distraught and confused about the events leading up to this moment, he implores his invisible mentor: "Merlin, if I must fall in battle, do not let me die bewildered." The entire play is essentially a flashback, beginning just before his first encounter with Lady Guinevere (Laurie Meyers). Korn suddenly transforms into a frisky young king, pleasantly nervous on the eve of his wedding. No matter which incarnation of Arthur he is creating, shy playful fellow or idealistic ruler or tortured husband, Korn plays multifaceted despot with warmth, subtlety and unerring dramatic consistency.

Similary affecting is Meyers, who enters to lament "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood" in a clear, lovely voice. Disappointed with being married off so soon, she mourns: "Shall I not be on a pedestal, worshipped and competed for? Not be carried off, or better still, cause a little war?" Every character plays a bit of the fool in the course of the night --a refreshing touch--and this is Jenny's moment. But Guinevere is a clever, rosy-cheeked lass and Meyers' performance justifies all the attentions the good lady Jenny receives--from Arthur, Lancelot, and adoring court knights.

SPARKS FLY when Arthur and Jenner literally stumble upon each other. Equally important, their voices blend wonderfully. Indeed, the singing throughout the show is remarkably strong. The three leads stand out but there is nary a stray note from anyone. Laurence Sobel's musical direction sparkles as does his piano playing, which serves the show so well.

One of the strongest and must amusing numbers is "C'est Moi," the entrance tune of Sir Lancelot (Andrew Gardner), a self-proclaimed "French Prometheus unbound." Gardner deftly embodies a ridiculous paragon of self-confidence and self-righteousness. He has a handsome easy manner and he uses his mobile (and bushy) eyebrows to great comic effect. From France, Lancelot has travelled to join Arthur's new order, the Knights of the Round Table, a chilvalrous fraternity dedicated to Arthur's new Machiavellian philosophy that might should be the weapon of right. Arthur welcomes him readily while the rest of the court initially is sickened by his conceit. This is a fine lively moment for the east and Meyers delivers some especially sharp jabs at Lancelot's lack of humility.

The otherwise utopian atmosphere of the castle is spoiled by the affair of Lance and Jenny; she cannot resist his physical prowess. This second act is comparatively heavy due to the sad unraveling of Arthur's ideals, but the acting compensates well. Korn is a mystified but never self-pitying king and the two lovers generate a high reading on the steamometer. The rest of the east is consistently supportive, but generally better at clownishness than solemnity. Mordren (Jon Tolins), Arthur's wicked illegitimate son, is especially adept at delivering bitingly sarcastic lines like "Ah, Camelot--where the King gives freedom and the Queen takes liberties."

Arthur takes on his troubles squarely, but where is his advisor Merlin anyway? The wizard is often alluded to but his absence is never explained. A watchful eye clearly presides over the production--but it almost certainly is Neher's. Three cheers for his efforts and those of his cast. Together they have reined in the lavish aura of the play to craft a drama of some depth and wisdom. The small cast fills the equally small stage with a bewitching blend of merriment, music, and bittersweet lessons.