SF Playhouse’s ‘Camelot’ gives contemporary edge to timeless legend of King Arthur

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Closing the San Francisco Playhouse’s latest season, in familiar custom, is Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot.” Just as the theater’s previous season concluded with a reimagination of “My Fair Lady,” another Lerner and Loewe musical, the 10th anniversary season closes also with a similar theatrical reinvention.

Most audience members will be familiar with the tale of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. It is a timeless legend whose ideals are associated with the early days of the Kennedy presidency. In this retelling of the story, director Bill English looks to shine bold new light on the age old classic — with emphasis on the love triangle. And in true SF Playhouse fashion, this production pushes the limits, transforming the traditional tale to something far sexier, grittier and more realistic.

In short, the legend is as follows: King Arthur, with the support of his wife Guinevere, established the Round Table for knights to discuss issues rather than solve problems through violence. This brought the French Lancelot to Camelot, and he became Arthur’s most trusted knight. However, Guinevere and Lancelot fell in love, and chaos ensued.

With last season’s “My Fair Lady,” SF Playhouse took home seven San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle awards including, both Best Principal Male and Female in a Musical (Johnny Moreno and Monique Hafen, respectively) as well as Best Production. Once again, Moreno and Hafen star as two of the three leading characters — the selfless King Arthur and his bored housewife Guinevere. Rather than seeming artificial and animated, as most characters do in musical classics, those in this version of “Camelot” are far more human, displaying honest passion and realistic qualities in each move executed. Moreno’s King Arthur is everything a king should be — charming, heroic and personable — making it nearly heart-wrenching to watch him lose everything he created and those whom he loved. The King seems genuinely perplexed, and the angsty Guinevere seems truly discontent.

Hafen absolutely dazzles as the imperious Guinevere, especially in her enchanting renditions of classics like “Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and “I Loved You Once in Silence.” Feisty and confident, she stupendously recreates a whole new character on the stage. This Guinevere is one wonderfully different but equally delightful as that of the role’s originator, the legendary Julie Andrews.

Starring alongside Moreno and Hafen is Bay Area newcomer, Broadway veteran and Tony Award-winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia, playing the role of the zealot Lancelot. Heredia gained his fame by originating the role of cross-dresser Angel in the award-winning musical phenomenon “Rent.” In this production, however, we see Heredia in an entirely new light, shedding his women’s clothing for that of a courageous medieval knight and doing so exquisitely.

Perhaps one of the most impressionable aspects of this theatrical work is the set designed by Nina Ball. Last season, she won the San Francisco Playhouse an SFBATCC Award for her scenic design work in “My Fair Lady.” In this production, Ball’s set magically captures the absolute essence of medieval Camelot and takes us on a spectacular journey back to the mystical land of wizards and warriors. Just as it was sung in the show, with Ball’s set, “there’s simply not a more congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering than here in Camelot.”

Inspired by the grand success of last season’s “My Fair Lady,” Bill English reconstructs the tale of King Arthur in Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot” in a similar and equally appealing manner. SF Playhouse’s season closer, “Camelot,” will be playing at its Post Street theater every Tuesday through Saturday from now until Sept. 14.

Contact Michelle Lin at [email protected].