Ham and jam and Camelot

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Lancelot (Wilson Jermaine Heredia, kneeling), King Arthur (Johnny Moreno, holding the sword) and Guenevere (Monique Hafen, right) take part in a knighting ceremony in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Camelot. Below: Royalty in a tower: Moreno and Hafen look down on the simple folk. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

I never loved Camelot, not ever once in silence. Not in the lusty month of May. Never. And I wanted to because how could you not love the work of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the guys who created the masterwork known as My Fair Lady? I’m also genetically inclined emotionally hard wired to love anything involving Julie Andrews, who followed up her star-making turn as Eliza Doolittle by playing the placid Guenevere in Lerner and Loewe’s adaptation of the King Arthur stories as told in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. But the fact is that the role of Guenevere, like the show in which she’s stuck, is a big drag.

The songs are corny and prissy and all wrong for a story of passion and chivalry and civil justice in bloody dark ages. In fact, Lerner and Loewe were all wrong for this story. They wrote Camelot as if still in the mists of George Bernard Shaw. There’s no blood and guts here, no red-hot love, no edge, which is interesting for a show with so much swordplay. It’s as if the passion is under glass in Camelot – you can see it, you just can’t access it, not through the music (which often feels like warmed over operetta), not through creaky book and lyrics (which are too clever and wordy by half).

Every production of Camelot I’ve ever seen suffers from the same problem. Because the show itself is so clunky, even the most professional of productions come across as mediocre community theater crossed with a Disney princess parade with a little Renaissance Pleasure Faire thrown in for kicks.

How exciting, then, to hear that San Francisco Playhouse was going to re-imagine Camelot as something darker and grittier. Director Bill English got permission to tweak the book and add in two cut songs, “Fie on Goodness” sung by the Knights of the Roundtable and Mordred, King Arthur’s bastard son (and a bastard in general), and “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” sung by Guenevere as a way of riling up the knights to give Lancelot the smackdown he so richly deserves.

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For all of English’s efforts, it’s still Camelot. The actors do their best to infuse some fire into the script, but Lerner defeats them at every turn. English has banished the twee flourishes that make the show ridiculous, but the central love triangle of King Arthur (Johnny Moreno), Guenevere (Monique Hafen) and Lancelot (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) still comes off as sorely underdeveloped.

The role of Mordred (Paris Hunter Paul) has been beefed up a bit but manages to remain a comic book bad guy who feels like he was thrown in at the last minute.

Nina Ball’s set gives us plenty to look at for 2 1/2 hours – castle towers, ruins, grassy hillsides (complemented by scenic projections at the back of the stage designed by Micah J. Stieglitz). And the fights are all grandly staged by Miguel Martinez and fiercely enacted by the actors.

Still and all, it’s Camelot, and that’s not such a good thing. Moreno has some affecting moments as the conflicted king, although Lerner’s ham-fisted dialogue tends to bring out Moreno’s inner Shatner. Hafen makes the most of Guenevere, but the role doesn’t ask for much more than anger, boredom and guilty passion. Heredia, who’s a long way from his days as Angel in Rent here, does everything he can to make Lancelot likeable in spite of his obsession with virtue and valor. Heredia is warm and appealing, although he seems hesitant in his big number, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” even though he has a beautiful voice.

Charles Dean opens the show on a lighter note as Merlyn, who is outfitted by costumer Abra Berman in a hilarious antler-tinged outfit with a bare midriff and a codpiece thrusting out into the audience. It’s such a funny moment that hopes are raised: perhaps this will be the Camelot that doesn’t take itself so very seriously. But no. Dean reappears later as an energetic Pelinore friend and defender to the king, and Merlyn is sorely missed.

Music director Dave Dobruksy and his quartet sound great (and make a brief appearance via video at the top of the show). The arrangements are refreshingly straightforward and aim to remove the preciousness that can make the score even more treacly than it already is.

But. It’s still Camelot, and though this is the most interesting and thoughtful version of the show I’ve seen, I should just accept the fact that I’ll never be a fan and leave it at that.

Camelot continues through Sept. 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

One more walk around Carmelina

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Carmelina Campbell (Caroline Altman), the title character of the 1979 musical Carmelina, has been collecting child support from three American GIs – but which is the real father of her daughter: Carleton (Rudy Guerrero, left), Walt (Will Springhorn Jr., center), or Steve (Trevor Faust Marcom)? 42nd Street Moon revives the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane-Joseph Stein musical. Photo by David Allen

Charming — that’s the word that kept running through my brain while watching the 42nd Street Moon production of Carmelina, the largely forgotten 1979 musical by Alan Jay Lerner (of My Fair Lady and Camelot fame) and Burton Lane (of Finian’s Rainbow and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever fame).

It’s easy to see why this gently old-fashioned show didn’t make it in the late ’70s. Based on the Gina Lollobrigida comedy Buena Sera, Mrs. Campbell (the same inspiration for Mamma Mia!), the musical feels as if it’s from a different time. Consider some of the new shows on Broadway in ’70: Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and They’re Playing Our Song. In that crowd, Carmelina seems like a throwback to the early ’60s, when musicals were on the cusp of becoming relics of a now-faded golden age.

That’s not at all to say that Carmelina isn’t worthwhile. It absolutely is. Lane’s melodies and Lerner’s (mostly) clever lyrics can be captivating and, as previously mentioned, completely charming. The story is well told, especially in the first act, when the plot is set up.

The spirited Carmelina (Caroline Altman) was only 17 when US soldiers drove Germans out of her small Italian village. Over the course of a month, the young woman became friendly with three American GIs. One of them left her with a daughter, and after years of living a fiction about an American hero named Eddie Campbell, Carmelina has to face the music. The three men, along with other survivors of their regiment are attending a reunion.

It’s such a pleasure to watch pros like Lerner and Lane attack a number like “Someone in April,” Carmelina’s romantic recollection of her time with the soldiers. What could be crass becomes sweetly comic. And when we meet the Americans (Will Springhorn Jr., Trevor Faust Marcom and Rudy Guerrero), rather than being brash and bold, they sing a beautifully harmonized “One More Walk Around the Garden,” a song about age and memories and reconciling the past.

The other song that deserves to be better known in this score is “It’s Time for a Love Song,” sung by Vittorio (Bill Fahrner), a suitor to Carmelina. It’s a love song as full of maturity as it is romance, and Fahrner’s version is warm and poignant.

If the first act of Carmelina feels like delicious set up, the second act, which is much less musically substantial, feels like a rush to the happy ending, which is a shame.

Director Greg MacKellan makes a strong case for Carmelina as a show worthy of a second look, and his cast and music director Dave Dobrusky on piano (with assists on acoustic guitar from cast member Michael Doppe) do the best thing the could possibly do with the material: they let the charm shine through.

[bonus interview]

I talked to Lynn Lane, widow of composer Burton Lane, Jenny Lerner, daughter of lyricist/book writer Alan Jay Lerner, and 42nd Street Moon Artistic Director Greg MacKellan for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

42nd Street Moon’s Carmelina continues through Nov. 18 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.