What a difference two years can make. Spamalot is billed as a musical "lovingly ripped off from the classic film comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail". When the national tour first came to Cincinnati in the fall of 2006, it was a hot commodity, having won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Musical just over a year earlier. Now, as the show returns, the Broadway incarnation is about to close, one of the many victims of the economic downturns facing the country. But, for audiences wishing to forget about foreclosures and layoffs, and instead seek some sure-fire laughs from limbless knights, killer bunnies, taunting Frenchman, and the not-yet-dead, this current national tour is a worthy option.
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), along with a few new characters and Broadway-flavored twists and turns. Eric Idle, one of Monty Python's original members, is responsible for the book and lyrics for 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 (especially to a Midwestern touring town), and cause an already uneven and slight 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 has become a norm, it seems, for shows in recent years.
The show's score sets Mr. Idle's lyrics to music by John Du Prez. The songs are catchy, yet also somewhat derivative (and reminiscent of the Broadway scores by Mel Brooks in their lack of sophistication). If the songs were stripped of their bright orchestrations and first rate vocal arrangements, the basic melodies would be revealed as extremely simplistic (especially by modern show tune standards), often involving variations of a three-note tune ("All For One," "Find Your Grail," "Where Are You?"). The lyrics are funny, to be sure, but again lean more to style over substance.
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 Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical for Spamalot. He has slickly created a piece that overcomes any shortcomings and is entertaining from start to finish. The tone is smartly in line with the original film source, and Mr. Nichols' attention to small details is praiseworthy. 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 wacky 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.
Broadway vet Jonathan Hadary's dry yet clueless take on King Arthur is appropriate and winning. As the cowardly Sir Robin, James Beaman shines as a true song and dance man. Playing a number of roles including Sir Lancelot, the French Taunter, Tim The Enchanter, and the Knight of Ni, Matthew Greer displays versatility and gets lots of laughs. Mr. Greer also has the joy of inserting a new line, much to the delight of the audience, when, as the French Taunter, he says "I throw my shoes at your President." Ben Davis (Galahad) makes the most out a Phantom of the Opera spoof, and Christopher Gurr (Bedevere) does nicely with a few smaller roles. Brad Bradley delivers "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" (taken from the Monty Python film The Life of Brian) with great showmanship, and Christopher Sutton is a hoot in several roles including Not Dead Fred and Prince Herbert. Esther Stilwell has the perfect over-the-top diva attitude as the Lady of the Lake and possesses the soulful and powerful vocals that the role requires.
As a season extra this year in Cincinnati (as opposed to a subscription show), the audiences for Spamalot are likely to be fans of the show or, more likely, the source material. They won't be disappointed, as the musical remains a fun romp through the land of Monty Python, due in large part to its solid and talented cast, along with superb direction and design. Spamalot continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio through January 4, 2009. For more information and tickets, call (513) 241-7469.