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Chicago by John Olson

Monty Python's Spamalot

Spamalot
Michael McGrath and
Tim Curry

It would be quite unfair to expect something with the name of Monty Python attached to follow any sort of rules, wouldn't it? If former Python Eric Idle wants to put on a show that's partly a stage version of one of their hit movies and partly a send-up of the past few decades of Broadway musicals, who's to say he can't? Not his many producers, not his director Mike Nichols, and probably not a soul in the audience at the Chicago press preview of the musical set to open on Broadway come February 14. Not as long as he keeps you laughing as he does with his musical "lovingly ripped off," as the credits put it, from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Idle wrote the book, the lyrics and collaborated with John Du Prez on the music.

I had seen enough scenes from the original film to develop some expectations for Spamalot and for the first half-hour or so the show stayed mostly within them. A narrator tells the audience this will be a story of England, but he's misunderstood by the cast, who launch into an opening number celebrating instead the joys of Finland ("Fisch Schlapping Song"). After the narrator provides the needed correction to the presumably hearing-impaired chorus, the show carries on with its fractured retelling of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The King (Tim Curry) and his trusted servant Patsy (Michael McGrath) meet up with a cartload of singing and dancing corpses doing the number "I Am Not Dead Yet" which reminds us that the middle ages were times of plague and violence, and probably not so heroic as we've seen in the legends and films that have celebrated them.

Two scenes later we get our first clue that Idle's taking a new turn on these medieval roads. As Arthur tells the story of his encounter with The Lady of the Lake (Sara Ramirez, in the largest of her three roles), who led him to the stone holding the sword Excalibur that would make him king, the Lady is joined by the "Laker Girls," medieval cheerleaders complete with pompons. Next, she and Sir Galahad (Sir Dennis Galahad, I might add) sing a send-up of Broadway love songs ("The Song That Goes Like This") and we start to see where Idle is heading. There are few targets from late 20th century Broadway musicals he misses, with his satiric arrows pointed at the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber (a chandelier crashes), Sondheim ("Another hundred people just got over the plague"), Les Miz (you can guess) and Frank Wildhorn (with the inspirational ballad "Find Your Grail"). He even covers recent shows like Wicked, The Boy From Oz, and yes, The Frogs.

There's still time for some of the most famous bits from the movie. It was obvious that the house was packed with people who knew the film well when the audience applauded the entrance of the Knight Who Says Ni. The battle in which Arthur severs two arms and a leg of his opponent (who keeps on fighting in spite of all that) is convincing, as is the decapitation of a knight's head by the killer rabbit, thanks to the special effects designed by Gregory Meeh.

If Monty Python and the Holy Grail was largely a send-up of film classics like Robin Hood, I guess it's legitimate that a Broadway musical version of it would focus so much on satirizing the conventions of its genre. (The two concepts are loosely tied together when the Knight of Ni sends Arthur off on a mission to produce a Broadway musical, "but not one by Andrew Lloyd Webber"). Even though you may have had enough of that from the likes of The Producers, Urinetown and Avenue Q, you're not likely to complain as long as you keep laughing. I was laughing most of the time - not so much that it ever hurt my sides, but I don't think a smile ever left my face for very long either.

A big reason for those smiles was the performances of, well, everybody. Tim Curry is a worthy successor to the film's John Cleese in the role of King Arthur, always gamely keeping up his optimism and leadership qualities in the face of the absurdities around him, except for the brief moment of doubt which is cured by his faithful servant Patsy in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." (Cleese "appears" in the show as the voice of God, visually depicted by giant color two-dimensional cutouts of a hand, a leg and a foot.)

Hank Azaria gets most of the choice parts from the original movie (The French Taunter, The Knight of Ni, and Tim the Enchanter) as well as Sir Lancelot. It should be no surprise to anyone that this talented comic actor (who's been doing voices for a multitude of characters on The Simpsons for years) would have the versatility to carry it off with flying (circus) colors. Spamalot will be a most impressive Broadway debut for him. Another TV star, Frasier's David Hyde Pierce, has a bit less to do, but his deadpan slow burn as three minstrels sing the song of "Brave Sir Robin," celebrating the knight's ability to face an increasingly grim list of possible fates in battle, is perfectly suited to his Niles Crane persona. Sir Robin chooses to "bravely run" and turn to a career in show business instead. He gets to lead one of the show's big numbers, "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," which I wouldn't dream of spoiling here except to say you would swear it was written by Mel Brooks.

Equally impressive as the three top-billed stars are the only nominally supporting players. Sara Ramirez has three new female roles written for this version, which, besides The Lady of the Lake, include a witch burned at the stake and an Edith Piaf-inspired singing cow. She's a vocal and comic dynamo, especially in her faux-11'o'clock number, "The Diva's Lament." Christopher Sieber has the perfect chiseled looks and comic skills for the empty Sir (Dennis) Galahad, and remains able to lose himself and become unrecognizable in other characters. Christian Borle gets center stage with his portrayals of the effete modern-day narrator and the delicate Prince Herbert who is unhappy with the spouse his father has chosen for him. Steve Rosen holds his own with a variety of supporting roles, including Sir Dennis' aging mother, and Michael McGrath is the funny and touching servant of King Arthur who provides the coconut shell-clicking sound effects of the King's horse that fans of the movie will remember. The remainder of the company are in constant motion, with about a million costume changes apiece and executing choreographer Casey Nicholaw's dances in a way that amazingly seems appropriate to their bumbling characters but that you know requires more skill than a hundred kicklines to pull off so convincingly. They play multiple roles that all add to the insanity.

The costumes and set design of Tim Hatley are suitably cartoonish in a very Python way. His designs include Scandinavian peasant wear, furry coats for giant knights as well as formal wear and Latin designs that could have fit Peter Allen or Barry Manilow. His settings provide touches like twinkly lights on a huge castle gate. The projection designs by Elaine J. McCarthy add real animated cartoons to the proceedings.

If Mike Nichols' recent projects like the HBO films of Wit and Angels in America caused any one to forget that he began his performing career as a standup comic, began his stage direction career with the earliest hits of Neil Simon and won a directing Oscar with the impeccable timing and editing of The Graduate, they'll be well reminded of his skill in directing comedy here. Every joke, every bit is perfectly timed and nothing is ever pushed too hard. He's the one who should be knighted, if we did that sort of thing over here.

One might argue that Broadway could do without one more self-referential piece poking fun at itself. One could also criticize Spamalot of a lack of focus on a single satiric target or complain that the anarchic spirit of the low-budget film on which it was based is lost in this big-budget, tightly staged Broadway musical. It would be hard, though, to argue that it isn't a really good time, thanks to some of the best comic talents of Great Britain and America.

Spamalot continues through January 23rd, 2005 at the Shubert Theatre, 22 W.Monroe St., Chicago, IL. Tickets for the remainder of the Chicago run, if available, can be purchased at the box office or through Ticketmaster.

Broadway previews begin at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York, on February 14, 2005. Tickets can be purchased at the Box Office or through Tele-Charge.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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