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The Once and Future King Jerry Colbert in Camelot

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If you hurry on over to Halton Theater, you'll likely discover that Jerry Colbert is pulling a Robert Goulet on us. Goulet was the dashing Canadian baritone who arrived on Broadway in December 1960 and starred as Lancelot Du Lac in Camelot opposite Julie Andrews -- and Richard Burton -- taking "If Ever I Would Leave You" and making it his own. Goulet kept up with musicals, appearing on Broadway again in La Cage aux Folles in 2005, two years before he died. More to the point, he returned to Camelot, mounting his own touring production after the Broadway revival of 1993 and aging gracefully into the Burton role of King Arthur.

Colbert figured prominently onstage at Pease Auditorium the last time CPCC Summer Theatre presented Lerner & Loewe's Camelot back in 1990. In fact, I remember the criticism that I leveled at Colbert better than any other aspect of the production -- because he accepted it so graciously. Repeatedly, he sang out of the side of his mouth, adding to some of the most chivalrous moments of his Lancelot an unwanted layering of Popeye the Sailor or a Brooklyn cabbie. It was something, Colbert insisted, his director should have pointed out before I did.

So there was a happy ending, and Colbert sang symmetrically ever after. Now he's Arthur in a production, ably directed by Tom Hollis, that takes full advantage of the Halton's more lavish resources -- and he's the best thing in it. I'd forgotten that Alan Jay Lerner had based his book on T.H. White's tetralogy, The Once and Future King. Having immersed myself in these works back in the late 1960s, I caught the derivation as soon as Merlyn called his royal protégé "Wart."

So Colbert is portraying Arthur from those deliciously tense moments before he first speaks to Guenevere until the eve of his final battle with Sir Mordred. The book and songlist have changed slightly over the past half century, causing Mordred's mom, the delightful Morgan le Fay, to vanished. Arthur has assumed paternity of the troublesome lad.

In his best Charlotte stage performance since The Goat, Colbert ranges from the boyishness of the young king to the anguish of the husband whose two best companions -- Guenevere and Lancelot -- are cuckolding him and suffering nearly as much as he. His insane glee as he sends Tom of Warwick away with his legend is the most majestic moment CP Summer has staged at Halton Theater. A helpful note: White intended us to understand that Tom of Warwick is none other than Thomas Malory, the medieval author of Le Morte d'Arthur.

Joe Gardner's scenic design far excels what was created -- or even possible -- at Pease in 1990. Costumes by Jennifer Matthews and Heidi O'Hare are at least the equals of those that won Bob Croghan the CL Theater Award for 1990, particularly the gowns that make Guenevere so regal and enticing. I can finally say that the kinks have been smoothed out of CP's new sound system. No hiccups from the body mics all night long. There was preternaturally loud jingling from King Pellinore's battle armor, and a hug between Arthur and Lance had a somewhat disconcerting thump, small prices to pay for sonic bliss.

Total tech bliss? Not quite. Gary Sivak's lighting design is subverted by the follow-spot operator at the Halton, who devoutly refuses to keep the spotlight still. Even when the stars are standing perfectly still and perfectly centered in their light, this tech invariably moves it and distracts from the performance. Sivak has my permission to shoot him or her dead. Just winging the stubborn bastard might not be enough.

Onstage, Colbert's excellence certainly isn't isolated as Hollis surrounds him with blue-chip vets. Kevin Campbell is right at home in his demystified incarnation as Merlyn, and Craig Estep's splutterings as Pellinore are a kingly delight. But it might be best not to have seen Patrick Ratchford and Lisa Smith before, with Ratchford stretching himself -- intermittently -- into a French accent as Lance and Smith wrapping herself in the mantle of Julie Andrews' supernal British along with the posh wardrobe.

Ratchford, after all, was recently espied as assorted cowpoke heroes in Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun before reviving his Pan shtick in Bat Boy. The accent suits him as badly as that purported wig that looks like a beret, but Ratchford's voice is as plumy as ever. Smith comes even more unexpectedly to the throne off trashy stints in Spitfire Grill, Man of La Mancha, and The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Forget all that, and Smith really is every inch a queen. Duets with Colbert on "Camelot" and "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" are infused with elegance and whimsy.

The biggest surprise is Joshua Looney in his first Charlotte musical role as Mordred. Looney's previous splashes have come in such lead roles as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Ty in Sordid Lives. Between those two, he dipped a toe into the musical version of Debbie Does Dallas without even getting solo, so this is his baptism. And what a wicked triumph he makes of it, with aid from a saturnine pair of boots, a punked hairdo, and the wizardry of music director Drina Keen. Aside from Ratchford's mellow "If Ever I Would Leave You" and the "Simple Folk" duet, the Act 2 songlist looks like a wasteland until Looney makes it bloom with forbidden fruit in "The Seven Deadly Virtues" and "Fie on Goodness."

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