Theater: A knight for a week

James Clow looks forward to role of Lancelot in 'Camelot'

By Patricia Beach Smith -- Bee Arts Critic

The last time James Clow appeared in a production of "Camelot," he was in charge of the dog. This time, when he takes the stage in the Music Circus production opening Monday, he'll be in charge of a lot more. The fate of the realm, for starters.

"I played Clarius in a college "Camelot" production," said Clow, a New York state native who graduated with a theater degree from Syracuse University.

Now an appropriately handsome 37-year-old baritone, Clow is making his Music Circus debut as Lancelot, who like Clow is a dashing young man with an apparent future.

"I see the whole show as a real struggle between instinct and ideal," Clow said, as he munched on a more mundane turkey sandwich during a rehearsal break. "On the one hand, there's that primal place we come from, and on the other, the idealistic place; the spiritual and human elements.

"That struggle seems to me to be the theme throughout," he continued. "Whether it's Arthur's struggle between not being barbaric in barbaric times and being chivalrous instead, or Lancelot's having been raised on a path to become the greatest knight, whose strength comes from purity and all those idealistic things, who all of a sudden is faced with his primal instinct to fall in love with a woman. It's all clash and struggle."

Lancelot loses his struggle and falls for Queen Guenevere, his boss's wife. Camelot eventually collapses, but not before Lancelot woos Guenevere with "If Ever I Would Leave You" and expresses confidence with "C'Est Moi."

"I love the book -- T.H. White's 'The Once and Future King' -- on which this show is based. It's fantastic. A great book," said Clow. "But I tried to come here with an open mind. The journey we're on is different than I thought it would be, but in a wonderful way. Everyone is entering into it and we are creating. It's a real lesson that takes time to learn because you risk something when you participate."

That aspect of the process is what draws Clow to the theater, he said.

"It's both the best and the worst part of the theater -- the fear of not knowing what's next and at the same time the thrill of not knowing what's next," he said.

Clow has been in Sacramento before. He appeared in "1776" three years ago in California Musical Theatre's Broadway Series.

"In '1776,' I played Rutledge. I am actually related to him on my mother's side. It's a fantastic show, but Rutledge was the person who was pro-slavery.

"This time in Sacramento, I am excited about being in the Music Circus tent for the first time because it's kind of an institution and it is the last year for it. Patricia Ben Peterson (Guenevere) and I have done a couple of shows together, and I know a lot of the other people here, so this is sort of like summer camp."

Clow started his career the summer he was 17, but said he knew he wanted to be an actor when he was 6 years old.

"I skipped my high school graduation to go do summer stock at the Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, New Jersey. We did a show a week and only had one day off a week and no nights. I did 'Sweeney Todd,' 'My Fair Lady' and 'Little Mary Sunshine' in this non-Equity theater with a tin roof. When it rained, the sound of it would echo. It was unbelievable training," said Clow. Although he has only acted in theaters, he aspires someday to do films.

It was at the Surflight that he met the theater's music director, another 17-year-old named David Loud, a pianist who is now an arranger and still a music director.

"Since then, I have worked with him twice on Broadway and we have become good friends," said Clow. Friendships and life experiences, he said, resonate with actors.

"Great theater is something you can emotionally engage in to have an experience that transports you from your life to another common collective," he said. "If it's good, it's a significant event that everyone is taking part in, living through together even though they are not speaking to each other. Everyone is at the same event and experiencing a lot of similar things and uniting through the experience.

"I think there is something really powerful ... about that," Clow said. "When it's great theater, you get emotionally involved, and participating is always better than watching."


Opens at 8 p.m. Monday and continues at 8 p.m. through Saturday and at 7:30 p.m. next Sunday, in the Music Circus tent, 1419 H St.; $27-$45. (916) 557-1999.

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