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.

Wilson Jermaine Heredia goes from Rent to Camelot

When Wilson Jermaine Heredia decided to make a splash in the Broadway world, he dove right in and created giant waves. For his performance as the dazzling drag performer Angel Schunard in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent he won Tony, Drama Desk and Obie awards and was nominated for an Olivier when he reprised the role in London.

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Since that splash, Heredia has worked consistently – his most recent Broadway gig was opposite Harvey Fierstein in the Tony-winning revival of La Cage aux Folles, but for his next chapter, the 41-year-old actor has taken a road that has led him away from his native New York (he was born and bred in Brooklyn) and to a new home and a new life here in San Francisco.

He is making his local debut as Lancelot in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Camelot directed by Bill English, who is putting a decidedly different twist on this classic, albeit eternally troublesome musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe.

From his San Francisco home, Heredia talked about his life change and what it’s like to be a Knight of the Round Table.

Q: Since the whole Rent experience, what have you done that makes you proudest or happiest?
A: Life has been so eventful it’s hard to pick something, but I have to say that after all those years in class and working toward something, I’m getting to work with people I admired. I love that. Another thing is being able to travel and meet the people who have been influenced by Rent. I was just having a conversation with somebody yesterday about the overturning of Proposition 8 here in California. I would like to think Rent had something to do with that – not directly, but in helping to influence a change of the public opinion or perception of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community. I’ve talked to a lot of parents who have told me that if it hadn’t been for the character of Angel, they might not have been able to sympathize with their child’s plight. That is priceless to me. Nothing can top that for me. The fact that I’ve been an instrument in changing people’s minds about just being human, about being more human to each other. I feel absolutely humbled by that.

Q: How did you end up living in San Francisco?
When we made the movie Rent here, the weather, the people, the food, the ambiance, the art, I thought, “This is the place.” When I wasn’t shooting, I’d explore the city and the Peninsula. It’s so beautiful, and socially, culturally, I fell in love with it. Me and the universe have this particular relationship – sort of a call-and-answer thing. I said, “If I had the opportunity, I’d live here” and the universe said, “Check. I’ll prepare that for you.” That was in 2005. Eight years later, the universe said, “Are you ready?” It was definitely time for a move, so I listened diligently and followed. I was initially worried that not being in New York or LA I’d be out of the loop. But on the contrary, more opportunities have opened up for me here. What I love most is that when I meet people here, they don’t necessarily pigeonhole me into something I’ve done before. It’s nice to stretch out and experiment.

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Q: You’re making your San Francisco stage debut in this re-imagined Camelot, which includes songs cut from the original production and a feel that’s more Game of Thrones than the fairy tale-ish Camelot we’ve come to know. What’s your take on director Bill English’s version?
I’ve never seen Camelot, but from my knowledge of how it’s been done before, it seems it was done more superficially. We’re really playing more of what’s in the script. For instance, my song “C’est Moi” is an easy number to perform if you just gloss over it as sort of a celebration of self. But in Bill’s vision, the song is much more about Lancelot’s desire to be the best. He’s worked his whole life toward this particular goal, and he’s there. When he says, “I’m far too humble to lie,” he really means it. His confidence comes less from himself and more from his faith. So much of what he does is about faith and ideals and values. Love definitely comes into that as a belief and a faith because it feels just as real as any belief system, any religion. That’s where the conflict comes for Lancelot. There’s this deification of King Arthur and elevating Camelot to a divine height, then there’s this love he feels for Queen Guinevere. I think part of what Bill is concentrating on here is the naivete of following things without thinking them through. He’s really trying to get to the core of the show and wants us to play it as truthfully as possible, which is really exciting.

Camelot photo above by Jessica Palopoli

Camelot begins previews July 16, opens July 20 and 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.