David Lee HRHFRASIER co-creator David Lee (left) returns to Red Bank to direct a young cast of pros (including Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, right) in the Two River Theater Company production of CAMELOT. 

Even as Red Bank’s own Phoenix Productions offers up a supremely silly take on the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table — courtesy of Monty Python’s Spamalot — the professionals at Two River Theater are getting serious about “The Once and Future King,”   beginning with Saturday’s first preview performance of Camelot.

The 1960 golden-age musical from the songwriting team of Lerner and Loewe — a Broadway costume classic that originally starred Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Roddy McDowall and Robert Goulet — is already an unorthodox choice for the Two River team led by John Dias and Michael Hurst. But a closer look reveals a production that loses the brooding middle-aged actors in favor of a dynamic young ensemble of just eight players — even as it preserves the award winning score that gave the world “How to Handle a Woman” and “If Ever I Would Leave You.”

Directing the show that opens on Friday, November 21 and runs through December 14 is David Lee, the Emmy winning sitcom impresario (Frasier, Wings) whose previous Two River outing was the celebrated Present Laughter from two seasons back (he also re-teamed with some of the original Frasier cast for a fundraiser presentation on the Red Bank stage). He’s working with an awesomely experienced cast that includes Oliver Thornton, a young veteran of London’s West End (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Rent) who’s making his American stage debut as Arthur — plus Nicholas Rodriguez (Disney’s Tarzan) as Lancelot, and (as the man-you-love-to-hate Mordred) Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who shared the Broadway stage with Angela Lansbury and Elaine Stritch in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Tony nominee Steve Orich (Jersey Boys) directs a live ensemble of seven musicians.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to David Lee about the pros and cons of parades, pageantry and pointy hats. Read on…

redbankgreen: We have to lead with a memory of an old amateur production of CAMELOT that we once endured, in which the short, balding Arthur lost both his wig and his Burger King crown in the heat of battle. The wig was impaled briefly on a sword before flopping to the floor, where it lay like a sad old Tribble until a member of the ensemble kicked it into the wings like a shuffleboard puck. So we’re all kind of in need of a palate cleanser, and it seems YOU need to work even harder to erase images like that one… 

DAVID LEE: It’s a hole that you can definitely get sucked into…I Googled videos of a bunch of amateur and high school productions, and now I’m in need of a palate cleanser myself!

Really, this is a re-examination of a piece of work that I loved when I was 11 or 12 — I fell in love with the score when I first heard it, but I was disappointed in the show when I finally got around to seeing it. It can be gorgeous to look at, with the costumes, the parades and pageantry, but at the same time there seemed to be a lot of clutter — extraneous characters, big scenery.

Another thing that’s happened with the show over the years was that it became identified with mature actors like Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Jeremy Irons…it kind of became expected that Arthur would be an actor in his 60s or even 70s.

This is being pitched as a “modern” take on the show in the advance publicity, so just to clarify, this isn’t something like King Arthur transposed to Wall Street, is it? Or by “modern” do we mean a minimalist, almost avant garde approach?

No, nothing like that; we’ve preserved the setting and the really touching, human story at the heart of it…a story that has resonance today. It’s the story of a man with youthful idealism, a woman and a friend who share his goals, and the ways in which that idealism comes crashing into human nature.

It’s not my intent here to do things on the cheap with just eight people…we’re taking a different approach to it; telling the story with the confidence that the modern audience doesn’t demand pomp and pageantry to appreciate what happens to the characters in this story. So, no pointed hats, no men in tights…and no chorus!

There’s just one set; one woman in the cast; a great score and a great love story that’s more like a cautionary tale. In the words of Sheldon Harnick, “people beat scenery.”

One look at the cast tells us that we’re not in Richard Harris territory anymore. It’s an almost shockingly fresh-faced looking bunch for anyone who’s really grown up with the classic CAMELOT — although that’s a concern tempered by the fact that these young actors are very well credentialed. We’re interested in how Oliver Thornton came to make his stateside debut in this production…

Oliver just walked into the audition, he had just arrived in America, and just astonished everyone. He’s a find; an actor of real presence and charisma…he’s breaking your heart up there on stage.

I had a much harder time finding the right Guinevere. I needed someone who’s a lot earthier, more gutsy, than the traditional Julie Andrews conception of the character. Britney Coleman sent in an audition tape, and when I got around to checking it out…well, I seldom get that kind of immediate rush from any performer.

Another thing to stress is that this is YOUR exclusive adaptation of the familiar musical…no one else has presented this version of the show, although you did workshop it on the West Coast a couple of years back. 

I adapted the show for the eight-person cast with the permission of the Lerner and Loewe estates, and we did it at the Pasadena Playhouse back in 2010. A couple of years later, I had my first experience working with the Two River people…and I loved it here. John Dias asked what else I might have that we could collaborate on, and I mentioned that, well, I do happen to have this eight-person version of Camelot

And is the show that we’ll be seeing in Red Bank significantly different from what the little old ladies from Pasadena saw?  

There have been changes made to the show since it was done in Pasadena, so this is a new and entirely homegrown New Jersey production. It’s a new approach to a classic show, and it’s something you’ll only get from Two River Theater, who would never mount a strictly by the book, traditional production of anything!

Camelot goes up in the first of five previews on Saturday, November 15; opening on Friday, November 21 and running through December 14 with a mix of matinee and evening performances. Tickets ($20 – $42 adults) and details on special performances can be obtained by taking it here.