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King Arthur Embues Idealism, Hope
Stepping into a role originated by Richard Burton and immortalized on film by Richard Harris, the lead for the upcoming Pensacola performance of “Camelot” is Bob Brown.
A 40-year veteran of the theater with more than 160 productions to his credit, the baritone Brown, who possesses a voice described by one art critic as “perfectly burnished,” relishes his turn as King Arthur.
I was lucky enough to catch up with the personable Brown for a brief cell phone chat recently and delighted to find his speaking voice is as lushly resonant as his singing one is reputed to be. (And doesn’t THAT bode well for the evening’s entertainment Tuesday, Feb. 20 at Saenger Theatre.)
While reading the libretto as a refresher, I was reminded I’d been struck by the sparkling dialogue the first time I’d seen the play.
It must be great fun working in scenes containing, for instance, smile-inducing passages like Merlyn’s wry aside to Arthur, “And where is the king? Swinging in the trees.”
Brown ebulliently agrees, adding, “Actually, we really have a tree onstage and I jump out of it for the exchange with Merlyn.”
Based on T.H. White’s “Once and Future King,” this edition of the Broadway classic will have all the light-hearted and heart-wrenching charm of the original. The musical made its Broadway debut in 1960 and was an immediate hit, as well as having its title associated with President John F. Kennedy’s White House. People who had never even seen the play still knew the refrain, “Cam-e-LOT! Cam-e-LOT!”
Directly drawn from White’s version of the Arthurian legend, “Camelot” is the story of King Arthur, his beloved queen Guenevere and best friend Lancelot du Lac. They people a kingdom filled with wizards (Merlyn), Knights of the Round Table (a chivalrous organization) and perfect weather.
Tragically, the halcyonic aura that enrobes “Camelot” is brought crashing to earth by a disastrous (but unconsummated, mind you) love affair between those closest to Arthur. It is exposed and exacerbated by his viperous illegitimate progeny, Mordred.
The tale of Arthur’s trial by love and fire ends on a great battlefield, which, though steeped in regrets and sadness, inexorably becomes a field of forgiveness and redemption.
After spending so much time in Arthur’s skin—the company began rehearsals in late September and will perform in more than 50 cities through April—Brown says what he likes most about the character is that “every time he falls down he gets up again. He’s ALWAYS trying to make it better.”
In the play, Arthur seems like quite a Renaissance man, conflicted about war and social class. At one point, he muses on the fact that knights, because they can afford armor, only get dented while slicing up peasants and footmen in battle.
Arthur finds that is inherently unfair and decidedly un-chivalrous. These are also, arguably, very current and hotly debated modern themes.
“That’s why the play still resonates with audiences today as it did in the ‘60s—the basic decency of the character,” Brown says.
Besides Arthur’s character, Brown shares his favorite scene and song from “Camelot.”
“The proposition speech at the end of Act 1 is one of the better written monologues in musical theater,” he says. “And the closing version of ‘Camelot,’ when Arthur sings to young Tom, crystallizes the idealism and hope of the entire piece.”
Idealism and hope? When an evening at the theater ends, it’s nice to go home smiling.
“The audience will love this production,” Brown says, reassuringly. “The costumes, the music…it’s just a gorgeous set and the lighting’s phenomenal.”
Where: Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox Place
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20