Hoopla

By revisiting 'Camelot' writer finds magic in paring down mythical musical

Nikki Scheel

Guenevere (Meg Sharp) watches as King Arthur (Matthew Aaron, left) bestows knighthood upon Lancelot (Perry Sook) in “Camelot,” coming to the Old Creamery Theatre in Amana from today (4/26) through May 20. Royal romance and intrigue play out to the familiar music of Lerner and Loewe, but the story gets a new twist from Old Creamery alum David Lee, whose creative hand helped shape and launch such television hit sitcoms as “The Jeffersons,” “Cheers,” “Wings” and “Frasier.”
Nikki Scheel Guenevere (Meg Sharp) watches as King Arthur (Matthew Aaron, left) bestows knighthood upon Lancelot (Perry Sook) in “Camelot,” coming to the Old Creamery Theatre in Amana from today (4/26) through May 20. Royal romance and intrigue play out to the familiar music of Lerner and Loewe, but the story gets a new twist from Old Creamery alum David Lee, whose creative hand helped shape and launch such television hit sitcoms as “The Jeffersons,” “Cheers,” “Wings” and “Frasier.”

The music is the same, but former Old Creamery Theatre actor David Lee has given new wings to the story of “Camelot.”

He’s breathing new life into the legend of King Arthur, woven through the music of Lerner and Loewe. The Old Creamery will become one of the first theaters in the nation to stage the eight-person adaptation, which opens today (4/26) and continues through May 20 on the main stage in Amana.

Lee, 67, has built a career on launching new shows, especially for television. Fresh out of graduate school, he spent the 1973-74 season as an actor at the Old Creamery Theatre’s original site in Garrison.

But his native California soon beckoned, so he headed to Los Angeles, where he found his personal Camelot as a writer, producer and director for television and theater. With 18 Emmy nominations and nine wins, his A-list credits include being a writer and producer for “The Jeffersons” and “Cheers,” and a co-creator for “Wings” and “Frasier.”

After “Frasier” ended in 2004, he turned his attention back to theater. Among his projects, he directed a 2007 concert version of “South Pacific,” starring country superstar Reba McEntire and Broadway’s Brian Stokes Mitchell, who had a recurring role on “Frasier” and recently appeared at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City.

Lee also had the time to devote to a project he had been lured to many times over the years: a theatrical adaptation of “Camelot.”

“I have always loved the score to ‘Camelot.’ It’s one of the first albums that I ever owned, and I just played the grooves out of it,” he said from his home in Palm Springs, Calif. “I remember the first time I saw it — I thought, honestly, this is disappointing. I thought it was really long. I loved every note of the music, every lyric, and I loved the story, but thought, why is it taking three hours to get through this?”

Every time he saw it, he had the same reaction.

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He wanted to “fix” it, by honoring the musical score, but concentrating “on parts of the story that would get lost in what I call ‘the underbrush’ of other things going on,” he said.

He contacted the Lerner and Loewe estates with his idea, and with their blessing, he decided to dive into the project.

“I went through the script first, and I cut out everything that didn’t have to do with the main love triangle” of King Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot. “I sort of surprised myself with my red pencil, because that eliminated Merlin, it eliminated Pellinore, it eliminated Morgan le Fay, it eliminated Nimue. What I was left with was this beautiful, beautiful story that was now simple and easy to understand. The emotional stakes were heightened because you weren’t distracted by all this other stuff.”

Anxious to see what it looked like “on its feet,” he staged a “very successful” production at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2010, polished it a bit, and took it to the Two River Theater in New Jersey in 2014, where he said it garnered “excellent reviews” in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Times’ headline from Dec. 5, 2014, declared the show “freed from its heavy armor.”

His stripped-down tale, designed to be told on a unit set with simple costumes (“no armor, no ladies in pointy hats”), is designed like “a cautionary tale told around the campfire,” he said. “It’s just a different approach.”

His inspiration came from reading about the people living around Winchester Castle in England, who embrace that site as the mythical Camelot, complete with a replica of the Round Table hanging on a wall.

“Every year, they would gather to enact the story “in very simple form,” Lee said. “That’s really what set me off on the path.”

The adaptation has recently been licensed, making it available for troupes like the Old Creamery to stage it.

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Sean McCall, the Old Creamery’s artistic director, was thrilled to learn of this new script from theater colleague Randal West. Formerly the director of the Way Off Broadway troupe at Fairfield’s Sondheim Center, West is now artistic director at the Great Plains Theatre in Abilene, Kan., and is the Old Creamery’s guest director for this show.

“As a small professional theater, we’re constantly facing budget constraints,” McCall said. “You know you can only afford to pay X number of people. There are certainly big shows out there that I’ve always felt like we can never look at. David (Lee) addressed some of the problems with the original ‘Camelot.’ It’s so epic that it goes on and on, and many productions run over three hours, and it’s just too much.

“When (audiences) now go to the theater, they don’t want to live there for three and a half hours. He went at this and honed it down to the love triangle, which is really the heart of the story. ... He really narrowed it down, kept the songs and reinvented it. It’s become more theatrical, like a play within a play, and all of that is exciting.”

Since Lee will be traveling to New York during the production time, he’s hoping to swing by Amana and see show.

Sean McCall, who is serving as stage manager for this production, is excited about that prospect — and a little terrified.

“I don’t think anything is probably more nerve-racking than having the playwright in your audience,” he said with a laugh. “You always hope you live up to the vision that they were trying to put on the piece of paper. And every production is going to bring its own flavor to it. ... In our case, I think he’s going to be really pleased.”

Lee will see one bit of tweaking. Although the new script is written for seven men and one woman, the Old Creamery is adding a handmaiden for Guenevere, to give a little more balance vocally, McCall said, and “to give a little more presence to the females out there.”

Lee is ready to see it bloom and grow.

“At this point for me, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s very satisfying to see something that was just an idea — I sat down one day at my (computer) thinking maybe I could help this old warhorse of a show have a new life — and to see that it has come to fruition.”

GET OUT!

WHAT: “Camelot”

WHERE: Old Creamery Theatre, 39 38th Ave., Amana

WHEN: Today (4/26) to May 20; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday

ABOUT: Music by Lerner and Loewe, story adaptation by David Lee

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TICKETS: $31.50 adults, $19.50 students, Old Creamery Box Office, (319) 622-6262 or Oldcreamery.com

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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