Ben Johnson's favorite sin was avarice; his stories are populated with characters whose greed makes them easy dupes for the con men at the center of his plays. The Shakespeare Theatre Company resurrected one of those chestnuts, The Alchemist, which I caught on its closing weekend. The show got good reviews for its design elements (not unusual for The Shakes; they spend buttloads of money on the look and sound of their productions) but received only middling notice for The Alchemist's overall effect. I read a couple of pieces which thought the show lacked, I don't know, "pop." I think I disagree with those comments, though I do think director Michael Kahn had better luck with the first Johnson he directed for The Shakes, Volpone (the fact that I was in it has NO BEARING ON MY OPINION WHATSOEVER).
That previous show (at right,) had the advantage of a supporting cast made up of the best Shakespearean farceurs around: Floyd King, Ted van Griethuysen, Philip Goodwin, Wally Acton, Emory Battis, and Helen Carey (who won the Helen Hayes for her role in the show) all helped make Volpone accessible to the modern audience. With The Alchemist, Kahn did not have the use of that terrific company of classical clowns, so the production may not have measured up quite so well. (The title role in particular would have been a great fit for Floyd, but he was already attached to the next show at The Shakes.) Placing the action of The Alchemist in modern day caused a few bumps in logic, but I laughed much more than I expected to, and several of the performances were top-notch. Kate Skinner was effective as the prostitute with the heart of a cash register, and David Sabin was a hoot as a horny, over-the-hill knight. Michael Milligan was central to the action as the servant who masterminds the scheme to dupe the locals (and he looked pretty fine in those skin-tight military trousers), and fresh-faced Alex Morf made a great impression as a young social climber.
I think the reviews were too hard on this production; it fulfilled everything Ben Johnson could have wished.
Out at Olney Theatre, Camelot is settling in for a holiday run. This tribute to another deadly sin, lust, needs judicious pruning, and the gang at Olney has done quite a bit (that drip Morgan Le Fey is completely gone, which is always a good thing). Still, I find the show overlong in spots; Lerner and Loewe always had trouble keeping their shows to an endurable length, and the episodic quality of the show's source material translates to the stage like, well, a series of episodes. The music is swell, and is delivered by a nice-sounding cast and an orchestra of only six people (it sounds like many more).
To my knowledge, I have not seen either of the leading men before. Aaron Ramey fulfills all the requirements of Lancelot, and when he opens up on his big ballad, "If Ever I Would Leave You," there's no doubt why he was cast. I had trouble, though, with the King Arthur of the piece; he carried a sullen, morose quality with him throughout the performance, a choice which does not serve the early scenes, in which we should be charmed by Arthur's boyish lack of confidence. I have seen Patricia Hurly, who plays Guenevere, before, though only in a straight play (Doubt). She sounds terrific here, and can't be blamed for the fact that my mind kept hearing the incomparable Julie Andrews during her numbers. I could not get Dame Julie out of my head, a problem I also had with Evan Casey's turn as Mordred. Roddy McDowall (left) created that role in the original production, which also starred Richard Burton and Robert Goulet, and his brief performance on the original cast album made me put Mordred on my list of roles to play. Never got the chance, unfortunately, and how did this get to be about me?
The show is swiped by a friend of mine (go figure), Bill Largess, whose Pellinore is hilariously effective. His expositional scene as Merlyn works well, too, and he earns points for being able to act in a costume which is all gown and hair. This guy looks like Cousin Itt's grandfather on the way to part the Red Sea, but Bill makes it work.
The show could probably use a few more ensemble members, but in this economy, let's be glad Olney is even attempting large-scale musicals, while their infinitely wealthier competitor, Arena Stage, is sliding by with The Fantasticks, an eight character chamber musical more suited to high school drama departments. And really, you can't beat Camelot's score, which is one of the best of the old chestnuts.