Monty Python's Spamalot Book & Lyrics by Eric Idle. Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle. A new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Directed by Mike Nichols. Choreography by Casey Nicholaw. Set & Costume Design by Tim Hatley. Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners. Hair & Wig Design by David Brian Brown. Special Effects Design by Gregory Meeh. Projection Design by Elaine J. McCarthy. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Starring David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry, Hank Azaria. Also starring Christopher Sieber, Michael McGrath, Steve Rosen, Christian Borle. With John Bolton, Brad Bradley, Thomas Cannizzaro, Kevin Covert, Jennifer Frankel, Lisa Gajda, Jenny Hill, Emily Hsu, James Ludwig, Abbey O'Brien, Ariel Reid, Pamela Remler, Greg Reuter, Brian Shepard, Rick Spaans, Scott Taylor, Darlene Wilson, and Sara Ramirez.
What's that rumbling sound emanating from West 44th Street? Is it an audience going wild over the latest Main Stem hit? Is it two African swallows furiously beating their wings in an attempt to transport a coconut? Or is it the musical theatre art form being crushed under the unsupportable weight of an industry that doesn't care what it puts on?
The answer: all of the above. Spamalot, which just opened at the Shubert, is additional evidence (if more is needed) that producers and creative teams no longer need to expend thought, care, or sense to have a smash hit. If the show is based on a famous (or even infamous) movie with a huge built-in fan base, bring it to Broadway and take the profits to the bank.
The latest film receiving this treatment is the 1975 cult favorite, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In it, the esteemed British comedy group Monty Python, which helped launch the impressive careers of John Cleese and Eric Idle, ostensibly took on Arthurian legend (King Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad, and a host of others make appearances), but subsumed the plot as necessary to pursue pure, unadulterated comedy. Since that comedy ranged from the subtle to the outrageous and from the absurd to the just plain silly, most Python devotees wouldn't have it any other way.
With Spamalot, they won't have to. Idle - billed as the show's librettist, lyricist, and co-composer - has created such a faithful translation of the film that no one has to worry about being assaulted by any fresh comic ideas. There's some new material - Idle has come up with a few new scenes and songs (with composer John Du Prez) - but this show isn't about that. It's about the rush of recognition and laughter that sweeps over the house when familiar cue lines are heard for a wild French taunting scene or a confrontation with the Knights Who Say "Ni."
That makes this not a show like Mamma Mia! or Good Vibrations where you walk in humming the tunes; here, you walk in reciting the jokes. And if your idea of a musical is nothing more than seeing scenes and jokes you already know by heart being acted out onstage, then you'll undoubtedly love Spamalot to the high heavens, and overlook the unnecessary and negligible ornamentations that Idle and Du Prez have provided.
But if you think a musical should be more than that, you're out of luck. This is not Hairspray or The Producers, two shows adapted from comedy movies that brim with true theatrical life onstage, and are fine examples of contemporary musical theatre craft. Even the recent (if misguided) Dirty Rotten Scoundrels gives its source material a jolt in a way that never happens here. Director Mike Nichols, music arranger Glen Kelly (who helped fashion Mel Brooks's tunes for The Producers into a worthy stage score), and choreographer Casey Nicholaw are content with doing work that's sometimes underpowered and sometimes overly manic, but is always uninspired.
Why not rest on their laurels? The show sells itself, and likely would even without a starry cast led by Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, and David Hyde Pierce. Still, most of what's here feels particularly obligatory: When Arthur (Curry) and his knights arrive in Camelot, the resulting scene and song are only a blandly glitzy Las Vegas floor show. Lancelot confronts his sexuality in a flashy number blending Barry Manilow and The Boy From Oz. Arthur sings a plaintive ballad called "I'm All Alone" while his servant Patsy (Michael McGrath) stands mere feet away.
Even more indicative of the show is "The Song That Goes Like This," a duet for Sir Galahad (Christopher Sieber) and The Lady of the Lake (Sara Ramirez), in which they stand on a Phantom of the Opera-like boat while an ornate chandelier careens above their heads. The song doesn't parody belty Andrew Lloyd Webber power ballads as much as it points up Idle and Du Prez's inability to wring much humor from targets over a decade out of date.
Do they not know how to extend Pythonesque humor to song length? What else could explain a two-minute number called "I Am Not Dead Yet" that fizzles after 15 seconds? The more American humor plays better: The show's primary highlight is "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," sung when the knights learn they'll have to put on a musical to find the Grail (don't ask); it takes a series of amusing if predictable shots at Jewish contributions to the theatre, complete with klezmer music and a bottle dance with grails. (It's telling, if unsurprising, that the score's only memorable song is "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," interpolated from the Python film Life of Brian, and used here to kick off the second act and for an unduly entertaining post-curtain call sing-along.)
Little else impresses: Tim Hatley's sets and costumes and Hugh Vanstone's lights are dreary rather than whimsical, Todd Ellison's musical direction and vocal arrangements are undistinguished, and Elaine J. McCarthy's projections inject some much-needed visual appeal and recall Terry Gilliam's original, iconic animations in their style, color, and attitude while lacking their wit.
Of the performers, Christian Borle receives well-deserved laughs as an exposition-spewing historian, but practically everyone else walks through their roles. (The men in Altar Boyz make a far more entertaining group of religious crusaders.) Also inexplicably lost is rising star Ramirez, a scintillating comic highlight of 2001's A Class Act now relegated to half-baked impressions of Celine Dion and Liza Minnelli. Her big solo, the unfunny "The Diva's Lament" in the second act, finds her complaining that she has nothing good to do in the show. I share in that sorrow.
At least there's some solace to be found in Cleese's voiceover as God, who assigns the Grail quest to Arthur and his knights. His contribution, while brief, is invigorating, a reminder of the biting humor and originality present in the original film, but absent in this forced, fabricated treatment.
Of course, Monty Python fans will be in hysterics when they hear the words
"Bring out your dead" accompanied by the sight of a truck stacked with
presumed corpses. Lovers of Broadway musicals must be forgiven for not
joining in their revelry; they're likely only to see their once cherished
art form rotting on the cart.