Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Phoenix Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Chicago and Fun Home

Kate Cook, Toby Yatso, James D. Gish (center),
and Cast

Photo by Reg Madison Photography
Toward the end of the classic musical Camelot, which tells the story of King Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot, and the formation of the Knights of the Round Table, Arthur desperately hopes that his story will be remembered, so he enlists a young boy he meets to promise to pass his story on. That sense of storytelling in the show inspired playwright David Lee to take a fresh look at this beloved musical to see if it could be told by a smaller cast of actors as if they were around a campfire telling the story with the focus squarely on the central relationship triangle of Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot. The Phoenix Theatre Company presents the local premiere of this new adaptation of the musical which features a gifted cast of eight actors (most of whom play multiple roles with ease), assured direction, and impressive creative elements, resulting in a gorgeous, charming, and ultimately moving production.

The plot is fairly simple, although there are plenty of twists and intrigue in Alan Jay Lerner's book. Set in the mystical kingdom of Camelot, the young King Arthur is nervous about meeting Guenevere, to whom he's arranged to be married. She is just as concerned and cautious of their forced nuptials. After accidentally meeting, they realize they have much in common and find a connection that blossoms into both a strong romantic relationship and a solid partnership. When the somewhat pompous and self-assured Lancelot du Lac arrives to serve as a knight at Arthur's round table, it sets in motion a rivalry between the three that forces all of their lives to change.

Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) based their musical on T.H. White's fantasy novel "The Once and Future King." The score includes such popular songs as "If Ever I Would Leave You," "How to Handle a Woman" and the title song, and Lerner's book provides a realistic view of these royal characters, though it is a bit stodgy and long. For this small cast adaptation, David Lee's adaptation cuts various supporting characters that don't add to the central love triangle and slims the show down to a cast of just eight. With only one female actor in the cast, playing Guenevere, an additional strength is added to that character, since she is the only woman we see. The cuts also speed the show up a bit, and Lee has the actors deliver narration to the audience, which helps to move the plot along while also giving the sense of a story being told. The storytelling aspect and use of actors playing multiple characters also provide a heightened sense of theatricality, as well. There is also a brief addition to the ending that brings the storytelling idea to a perfect closure. That ending also got me a little chocked up in how it ties everything together and provides a connection between the past and the present as well as forming a bond between the cast and the audience.

The three leads all have gorgeous singing voices that make every one of the well-known songs in the score soar. As Arthur, Toby Yatso has a good balance of nervousness and charm that help create a character who is unsure of himself. His clear delivery of Arthur's dialogue lets the audience have a better understanding of Arthur's thoughts, conflicted feelings, and the obstacles he faces. Kate Cook is fiery, fierce, and full of life as Guenevere. When Lancelot enters Camelot and Guenevere finds herself drawn to him, you never once doubt in Cook's nuanced portrayal that the feelings Guenevere has aren't real, even though she still loves Arthur. But you never feel anger toward her either, due to Cook's assured portrayal. James D. Gish is appropriately bold and strong as the overbearing and somewhat egotistical Lancelot. He forms truthful and strong bonds with Yatso's Arthur and Cook's Guenevere, and his warm, buttery voice delivers a crowd-pleasing solo of "If Ever I Would Leave You."

The five other men in the cast play all of the remaining roles, including several featured parts. John Batchan is a bundle of smirk and smugness as Mordred, the calculating illegitimate son of Arthur. Matravius Avent, Tony Castellanos, and Julian Mendoza are lively and fun as the three knights who challenge Lancelot to a joust, and Kendrick Stallings is bright and charming as Tom, the boy Arthur instructs to tell his story.

Director Michael Barnard instills the production with a huge amount of energy and the right balance of passion and pathos to provide a sense of realism to the production. But the playful, theatrical nature of this new adaptation is also always present. Cydney Trent's choreography is athletic and vibrant. Music director Jeff Kennedy achieves bright, colorful sounds from both the small cast and the orchestra. The creative elements are superb. Aaron Jackson's static scenic design is excellent, with various playing areas, a second level, arches, and stairs that work with just the addition of a few small set elements and imaginative props by Sarah Harris to create the many rooms of the castle and the multiple locations. Daniel Davisson is one of the best lighting designers in town and his work here is superb, with dark reds, bold blues, and an abundance of shadows that create many stunning and gorgeous stage images. Cari Sue Smith's detailed costumes and the hair and make-up by Terre Steed provide rich, period appropriate designs. Dave Temby's sound design is clear and loud.

Camelot is a musical that has a great score, and David Lee has found a way to tighten up the book and add a sense of theatrical storytelling to the show. While some purists may miss such characters as Merlin, Pellinore, and Morgan Le Fey, this small cast version is beautiful, fresh and appealing—and even quite moving at the end. Phoenix Theatre's production is a rich, joyful, theatrical treat that should appeal to fans of the show, those who are familiar with its stellar score, and anyone who loves the storytelling aspect that live theatre provides.

Camelot runs through October 24, 2021, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, visit or call 602- 254-2151.

Director: Michael Barnard
Music Director: Jeff Kennedy
Choreographer: Cydney Trent
Scenic Designer: Aaron Jackson
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Costume Designer: Cari Sue Smith
Properties Master: Sarah Harris
Hair and Make Up Designer: Terre Steed
Director of Production: Karla Frederick
Company Manager: Alex Koszewski
Stage Manager: Samantha Monson*
COVID Compliance Officer: Tatiana Trujillo

Reveler #2 / Dinadan: Matravius Avent*
Reveler # 1 / Squire Dap / Mordred: John Batchan
Reveler # 3 / Sagamore: Tony Castellanos
Reveler # 7 / Guenevere: Kate Cook*
Reveler # 8 / Lancelot: James D. Gish*
Reveler # 4 / Lionel : Julian Mendoza
Reveler # 5 / Tom: Kendrick Stallings
Reveler # 6 / King Arthur: Toby Yatso*

* Courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.