Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Spamalot is loosely based on the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail by the legendary Monty Python comedy troupe, which amassed a large following for its British TV series "Monty Python's Flying Circus" that ran from 1969-1974 and lived on through recordings, reunion specials, and movies. Monty Python and the Holy Grail skewered the Arthurian legends, roasting virtuous heroes of English lore, such as King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad, creating a salad bowl of anachronisms that make fun of past and present in equal measure, sprinkling it liberally with music hall bawdiness.
Spamalot follows the movie's basic plot as King Arthur scours his plague-infested kingdom for knights sufficiently noble to join his search for the holy grail. Along the way, the knights encounter a host of obstacles and villains, such as French Taunters, the Knights Who Say Ni, the Black Knight, and a killer rabbit. While Arthur is virtuous to the point of being bland, his knights each have their own quirks which become the butt of much of the humor: Sir Robin's cowardice; Sir Galahad's vanity; and Sir Lancelot's forthright manliness, which is undone when the damsel in distress he rescues turns out to be a prince. Adding spice to the brew is The Lady of the Lake, who first chose Arthur to receive the sword Excalibur and become king, and aids him from the sidelines in various ways. This Lady has the persona of a club-performing diva, and her entourage, her "Laker Girls," are pelvis-thrusting cheerleaders. While the Arthurian legends end on a melancholy note, there is never a doubt that this brash, bedazzling show is heading for a happy ending.
And what about those intervening years since these wacky knights first strode the esplanades into Twin City theaters? Have the time's up/#metoo movements, legalization of same sex marriage, or concerns about resurgent anti-Semitism cast a pall over the irreverence of Eric Idle's (one of the original Monty Python members) book and lyrics? Not to this reviewer's sensibility. While I totally support the aforementioned campaigns, nothing in Spamalot is mean-spirited or degrading, and any good cause is, in my book, strengthened by being able to have a sense of humor about itself. For example, the crowd-pleasing production number "You Won't Succeed on Broadway (if you don't have any Jews)" does not ridicule or admonish the Jewish faith (of which I am a proud member), but celebrates the preponderance of Jewish creators, performers and motifs in the world of musical theatercomplete with a bottle dance straight out of Tevye's shtetl. As with everything in Spamalot, it's all in fun, it's all good, and it's all vastly entertaining.
The score, with Idle's lyrics set to music by John Du Prez, comprise a collection of golden age Broadway melody types. None are memorable or particularly lovely, but all work exceedingly well in service to the show, and add to the fun every time a particular style is raffishly parodiedooh, there's a jazz-handed Fosse move, there a ladle full of Andrew Lloyd Webber excess. It's all delivered with winks and warmth. As directed by Sam Viverito, Spamalot is pure and simple, a comedy, and keeps moving quickly, so the chance to catch your breath between laughs is brief. Viverito also choreographed the show's many dance numbers, and while the choreography is not particularly distinguished, it does capture the attitude of parody and party.
This current non-Equity tour has a strong cast to put the knights and ladies through their paces. Steve McCoy is splendidly regal as Arthur, a bit naïve about his ridiculous quest, but maintaining his honor throughout. More than in the earlier iteration of Spamalot, McCoy's Arthur feels like the glue holding the production together. He also has a strong, serviceable voice. Leslie Jackson is a wonderfully wish-fulfilling Lady of the Lake, kind and ethereal in character, self-indulgent when she steps out of character in the hilarious "Diva's Lament." Keeping with the times, Jackson's Lady is less akin to Liza Minnelli, as in the original, and closer to Beyoncé. Kasidy Devlin proves himself both a spry physical comedian and a talented song and dance man as Sir Robin. All of the remaining actorsmost playing multiple rolesand ensemble members perform with finesse, bringing the whole jolly enterprise to life.
A note, though: I did sense that the ensemble is a bit reduced and my research shows that were twelve ensemble members in both the original Broadway cast and the original national tour, but this production employs only ten. No doubt a nod to rising costs, it reduces the razzle-dazzle effect of a heavily populated stage, but does not erode the entertainment quotient of the show itself. Still, I noticed it, so that says something.
The orchestra consists of just five musicians, but with three of them being brass players, the other two keyboards, they produce ample, well-tuned sound, ably led by conductor Emily Croome. That leads me to Spamalot's witty overture. Sadly, few shows today have an overture. This one doesanother throwback to the old tropesbut it plays at a racing gallop, as if even its creators know we all want to get on to the good stuff.
Original Broadway costume and set designer Tim Hatley had his work reproduced for this tour, with sets modified by James Kronzer. They work beautifully with this show, creating cartoon-like apparel that mines our visions of medieval living, and storybook settings that bring to mind the old fractured fairy tale cartoons. Humorous touches abound, such as when the Lady of the Lake rises from the water, her silky gown seems to be covered with lake algae, and Camelot's transition into a Vegas style showplace, dripping in glitz, all perfect illustrations to accompany Idle's comic-book plot. Mike Baldassari's lighting, Craig Cassidy's sound work, and Elaine McCarthy's projections complete the creation of this full-throttled musical comedy playground.
I do worry about some who come to Spamalot without being well prepared, such as the elderly woman seated behind me who, as the show was about to begin, asked her husband, with some alarm, "You mean it doesn't really have anything to do with Camelot?" I didn't hear his response, but sure hope she wasn't disappointed. I trust that, being fully informed upon entry, you will not be disappointed and, moreover, will be thoroughly delighted by this lark of a show, which does a good job of stating the joy in all its silly theatrics in the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." That advice might not be suitable for every occasion, but like Arthur's ramshackle knights, now and then can be a life-saver.
Monty Python's Spamalot, through April 7, 2019, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $117 - $68.00, Partial view: $48.00, Standing room: $34.00. Educator and high school/college student rush tickets 30 minutes before curtain, two tickets per valid ID. For tickets call 651 224-4222 or visit Ordway.org. For information on the tour, visit spamalotontour.com.
Book: Eric Idle, from the original screenplay Monty Python and the Holy Grail by Graham Carpenter, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin; Lyrics: Eric Idle; Music: John Du Prez and Eric Idle; Direction and Choreography: Sam Viverito; Original Scenic and Costume Design: Tim Hartley; Scene Design Modification: James Kronzer; Lighting Design: Mike Baldassari; Sound Design: Craig Cassidy; Projection Design: Elaine McCarthy; Music Supervisor: Stephen M. Bishop; Music Director/Conductor: Emily; Stage Manager: Pauline Humbert; Associate Director: Michael McFadden; Assistant Choreographer: Lynn Sterling; Associate Lighting Designer: Gertjan Houben; Executive Producers; Michael McFadden and Stephen B. Kane.
Cast: Jason Elliot Brown (Patsy/Guard 2), Blake Burgess (Mayor/Dennis's Mother/Sir Belvedere/ Concorde), Kasidy Devlin (Sir Robin/Guard 1/Brother Maynard), Adam Grabau (Sir Lancelot/The French Taunter/Knight of Ni/Tim the Enchanter), Tim Hackney (Historian/Not Dead Fred/French Guard/ Minstrel/Prince Herbert), Philip Huffman (Sir Dennis Galahad/The Black Knight/Prince Herbert's Father), Eric Idle (Voice of God), Leslie Jackson (The Lady of the Lake) Steve McCoy (King Arthur).
Ensemble: Noah Berry, Wes Carmen, Gideon Chickos, Dakota Dutcher, Joey Fontana, Whitney Hatch, Amy Laviolette, Vanessa Mitchell, Robert Toms, Stephanie Wasser.