“Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam…” so sang the gallant Knights of the Round Table, once upon a time. This little slice of historical lunacy is par for the course in Monty Python’s Spamalot, Python alum Eric Idle’s twisted, technicolor vision of Arthurian myth, playing now through March 18 at the Warner Theater.
For the uninitiated, Spamalot hews closely to the plot of the classic film “Monty Python and The Holy Grail.” In plague-ridden medieval England, King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Sir Bedevere, Sir Galahad, and Sir Robin all band together to seek the Grail for the glory of the kingdom. They are aided by The Lady of the Lake, a mythical damsel who receives far too little stage time for her liking. As the Knights close in on their goal, they navigate a constant stream of strange characters and absurd foes while uncovering hidden truths about themselves.
Writer and original Python company member Eric Idle introduced several entertaining diversions to elevate Spamalot from astring of regurgitated film sequences to giddy blur of medieval nonsense. The show opens with a ludicrous tribute to Finland, and the absurdity continues from there. The Knights cycle through an energetic cheerleading routine, a Vegas number replete with glittering dancers, and the outlandish “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”, in which Kasidy Devlin, as Sir Robin, helms a rousing sendup of Fiddler on the Roof and its ilk. The new additions bridge the Python chaps’ beloved original vignettes, adding just enough punch to help the show feel fresh and narrowly escape the “retread” label.
Adam Grabau is the engine that propels most of the show’s comedy. He digs into his multiple roles with childlike glee, presenting renderings of fan favorite characters that prove both faithful to the original and accessible to Python neophytes. He brings a level of riotous physicality to the role of The French Taunter that rivals and at times surpasses that of the venerable John Cleese. The howls of laughter generated by Grabau’s relentless tormenting of the plaintive Knights are a testament to his standout comedy chops.
As the Lady of the Lake, Brittany Woodrow anchors the musical side of the production with her smooth, powerful soprano. She owns the role of mercurial diva, vacillating between calm advice and brassy outbursts. Woodrow’s total command of her instrument allows her to wow the audience with ridiculous vocal gymnastics, which were, perhaps, designed to mock the likes of Celine Dion or Mariah Carey at their most histrionic.
For Python purists, there is indeed much to love. Aside from the parade of quotable scenes from the film, Eric Idle has littered the script with gifts to longtime fans, including callbacks to the “Fish Slapping Dance” and “The Lumberjack Song” from the original series, as well as a localized version of the darkly funny “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, from the Python film “Life of Brian”. The costume and prop designs implement sly tricks to creatively and efficiently recreate the bloody duel between Arthur and the Black Knight as well as the encounter with a certain carnivorous rabbit.
The one element that may irk some Python aficionados is the way in which the dialogue has been slowed down to cater to the live audience. Several of the classic jokes from the film feel very spoon-fed in the theatrical setting, and as a result they lose much of their comic bite. It’s fan-service at its best and worst.
For musical theater fans, there is much to cheer as well. The principals gamely break the fourth wall and throw themselves into hilarious parodies of well worn Broadway standards. Meanwhile, the high kicking ensemble brings a crackling energy to glitzy group numbers. A few shallow love connections satisfy the basic romantic requirements of a Broadway musical, but the emotion is never more than skin deep. While this might sink a lesser production, it fits the bill in Spamalot, where absurdist comedy is the law of the land. Besides, there’s no sense letting love steal the spotlight from the flying coconuts, catapulting cows, and lovely shrubbery.
Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle
Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Original Direction by Mike Nichols
Direction Recreated by BT McNicholl
Choreography by Casey Nicholaw
Choreography Recreated by Scott Taylor
Produced by Phoenix Entertainment, presented at the Warner Theatre
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes (15 minute intermission)