Proposition: Can a half-century-old musical about idealism and virtue be made relevant to 21st-century audiences? Based on the production of "Camelot" at San Francisco Playhouse, the answer is a resounding "yes!"
At first glance, the impressive set by Nina Ball, supported by smartly integrated projections by Micah J. Steiglitz and lighting by Michael Oesch, suggests a very traditional approach. However, director Bill English has pushed the setting back a few centuries, freeing the musical from the confines of armor and stone, allowing for a lighter, more mystical and definitely sexier production enhanced by Abra Berman's "Braveheart"-style costuming.
Returning from last summer's smart and vigorous "My Fair Lady" are leading players Johnny Moreno and Monique Hafen as Arthur and Guenevere. Moreno is an ideal blend of self-doubt and pensive anticipation of his responsibilities as king and husband, wrapped in a sleepily handsome leading-man package, not unlike that of the role's originator, Richard Burton.
Hafen, on the other hand, politely banishes all thoughts of Julie Andrews-style simplicity. Her Jenny, as her intimates call her, is a feisty, independent spirit. She's deeply in love with Arthur and supports his dreams, yet confidently exerts her own will when she sees fit.
The best voice in the production, Hafen soars through Frederick Loewe's glorious melodies, beautifully keeping them from veering into the potentially shrill operatic realm.
Another delight and "Lady" veteran is Charles Dean in double duty as the wise mentor Merlyn and the sweetly daft Pelinore. A consummate character actor, Dean has impeccable yet subtle comic chops and brightens the stage whenever he is on it.
Bay Area newcomer Wilson Jermaine Heredia, a Tony winner for his role as the drag queen Angel in "Rent," is a Lancelot far removed from the broad-shouldered himbos of yore. Slender and nervous, yet beatifically confident in his zeal, Heredia nicely portrays the duality of Lancelot's need to boast of his humility and virtue.
Paris Hunter Paul makes wonderfully hissable work of Alan Jay Lerner's under-scripted Mordred, Arthur's bastard son and a Richard III-esque architect of the Round Table's demise.
He's supported by a randy triplet of trouble in Ken Brill, Rudy Guerrero and Steven Shear, as knights vying to take Jenny to the fair.
They also put extra "lusty" into the "month of May," with outstanding ensemble work from Michelle Drexler, Stewart Kramar, Robert Moreno, Simone Olsen-Varela, George P. Scott and Adrienne Walters. Completing the cast are Calum John as plucky young Tom (alternating with Eli Clarke Nichols) and Julia Belanoff as siren Nimue.
Overall, English has devised a faithful, yet fresh and vibrant, presentation of this sometimes over-revered musical. Barring the occasional trumpet bleat, it is a great success and certainly a production that "shall not be forgot."
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Sept. 21
Tickets: $30 to $100
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org