Like the film, this musical adaptation follows King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in their pursuit of the Holy Grail. Most of the scenes beloved by fans of the movie are here (though a few, such as the Bridge of Doom, are missing), plus some new ideas. Eric Idle, one of Monty Python's original members, is responsible for the book and lyrics of the show. Filled with broad comedy, running sight gags, corny puns and one liners, and absurd British humor, the show isn't likely to be everyone's cup of tea, but it is certainly in line with all that Monty Python represents. As for the new material, the inclusion of the Lady of the Lake as a female counterpart for King Arthur works well. However the gay and Jewish jokes that take up much of act two are less successful, and cause an already uneven story to stray even further off course. To be fair, however, the mostly episodic nature of the piece isn't about plot or character development anyway, so the impact of a meandering storyline is minimal. The book also includes a healthy dose of self-awareness as a musical, which seems to been done to death as of late on Broadway.
The show's score sets Mr. Idle's lyrics to music by John Du Prez. The songs are catchy, yet also somewhat derivative (and very reminiscent of the score for The Producers by Mel Brooks). If the songs were stripped of their bright orchestrations and first rate vocal arrangements, the basic melodies that would remain are extremely simplistic (especially by modern show tune standards) and often involve variations of a three-note tune ("All For One", "Find Your Grail", "Where Are You?"). "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life," from the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, is the show's best song.
Despite possible reservations about the score and book, the show works. This is primarily due to the excellent work of Director Mike Nichols. Mr. Nichols, legendary director of stage and screen, won the Best Director of a Musical Tony Award for Spamalot. He has slickly created a piece that overcomes any shortcomings and is entertaining from start to finish. The tone of the piece is smartly in line with the original film source, and Mr. Nichols' attention to small details is praiseworthy. As with The Producers, Spamalot is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Choreographer Casey Nicholaw deserves much credit as well. His lively dances are a perfect fit for the material and bring a polish and hip factor to the proceedings.
Tim Hatley's sets and costumes are stylistically in the Monty Python vein and artistically rendered. With angled castle gates, a Vegas-style Camelot, and a cartoon cutout forest matched with shimmering sequins mixed with knightly garbs, Mr. Hatley's work does much to advance the absurd humor of the show. The lighting by Hugh Vanstone is first rate, and the creative projection of many Monty Python symbols into the show is professionally accomplished by Elaine J. McCarthy. Unfortunately, opening night in Cincinnati was hampered by poor sound, which will hopefully be corrected for subsequent performances.
The cast of mostly unknowns, even to theater aficionados, does well in presenting the piece. Michael Siberry is stately and aptly clueless as King Arthur. David Turner, best known to theater fans for his unique turn as Winston in Broadway's In My Life, does well as the cowardly Sir Robin. As Sir Lancelot, the French Taunter, and several other roles, Rick Holmes scores points in the comedy department. Bradley Dean (Galahad) and Christopher Gurr (Bedevere) make the most of their roles as well. Most praiseworthy, however, are Jeff Dumas (Patsy) and Tom Deckman (Historian, Herbert), who each stand out in smaller supporting roles. Pia Glenn has the right over-the-top diva attitude as the Lady of the Lake, but lacks the powerhouse vocals that are required for the role. The hard-working ensemble displays obvious talent while keeping up with the breakneck speed of the show.
Future theatrical historians will likely debate whether Spamalot should have beat out its competition for the Best Musical Tony Award, as The Light in the Piazza, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are also strong pieces worthy of acclaim. However, the show remains a big box office draw in New York, surely in large part due to the pre-existing fan base of the film. Though somewhat slight and decidedly unsophisticated, this piece is a fun romp through the land of Monty Python. With a strong cast in place for the national tour, Spamalot proves to be worthwhile viewing, especially for those who are fans of the movie version.
Spamalot continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio through October 29, 2006. For more information and tickets, call (513) 241-7469.