- Monty Python’s Spamalot
- Book and lyrics by Eric Idle; Music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle
- Adapted from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin
- Directed by Mike Nichols
- Co-Produced by Ostar Enterprises and Bob Boyett, at the National Theatre
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
All hail Monty Python’s Spamalot, a production with tongue so firmly in cheek that you can see it wiggle out of Monty Python’s ear.
When the collective Monty Python first appeared, during the reign of Lothar II the Large-Bosomed (A.D. 963-964½) it was hailed as a band of anarchist-Dadaist laugh artists. Thanks to changes in our culture, what was once Dadaist is currently orthodoxy (a large foot coming down from heaven and squashing people is now a foreign-policy platform). But they are still anarchists, if by “anarchists” we mean they take every cliché known to man and rub our faces in it until we laugh those faces off and become part of the faceless crowd.
Consider: after briefly floundering into a Finnish musical, Spamalot retells the story of how King Arthur (Michael Siberry) knit England together in the days of the Misty Isles. As every schoolchild knows, Arthur receives the sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake (Esther Stilwell) and her Laker Girls, puts together a coterie of brave knights and founds Camelot, a city which bears a striking resemblance to Vegas (“What happens in Camelot stays in Camelot,” the King warns Sir Lancelot (Patrick Heusinger), Sir Galahad (Ben Davis), Sir Robin (Robert Petkoff) and Sir Bedevere (Christopher Gurr)). Suddenly God, in the form of a very tall fellow wearing a dress (John Cleese, regrettably present only in voice) commands them to set out in search of the Holy Grail. Though the noble knights only dimly perceive their mission (“The All-Knowing and All-Powerful has misplaced a cup?” Sir Robin asks wonderingly) they immediately set out on their quest.
After being stymied by a typical French maneuver involving flying cows and very rude remarks, they are forced into a dark and evil forest. There, The Knights Who Say “NI” (or perhaps “KNEE”, as this was before written language) compel them to stage a Broadway Musical before they can continue their search. But how can they stage a Broadway Musical? They don’t have any…well, you know your history. And the legend of King Arthur. And you know they succeeded, or else you would be speaking Finnish right now.
Will you be surprised if I tell you that this production is tight, spectacular, glamorous and swell? The director is eight-time Tony-award winner Mike Nichols, and the great Casey Nicholaw handles the choreography. Spamalot gives the old National a workout; with flying sets (Tim Hatley designed), fireworks, Pythonesque video projections and the aforementioned flying cows. All of this is done flawlessly, and with great élan. The small orchestra puts out a sound normally affiliated with much larger bands. The whole schmear is done with such proto-Broadway vigor as to explain – and perhaps even justify – the ticket prices noted at the bottom of this review.
Let’s talk about some individual performances. Siberry plays the King as a cross between Richard Harris and James Cagney, radiant in his self-importance, occasionally growling sotto voce instructions out of the side of his mouth. It is an excellent conception for the role in this sort of musical, suggesting that King Arthur was at heart a con, and not a terribly bright one at that. Siberry pulls it off beautifully. His singing voice is serviceable (better than Harris’, and presumably better than Cagney’s as well) and certainly equal to the tests his libretto puts to him.
Among the supporting cast, two performances deserve special note. Sir Robin is a Knight with a special gift for musical comedy (who is also spectacularly unqualified for a Knight’s more traditional responsibilities) and Petkoff is an actor with a special gift for playing Sir Robin. Holy Mackerel, what a voice! In addition, his comic timing is exquisite. He is one of those rare actors who can make an audience laugh by not saying anything at all – by just looking at somebody. Regrettably, he will be with the production only through the16th; after that, James Beaman (who for all I know may be just as good) takes over.
Christopher Sutton plays several roles with such distinctness and flair that, had he been a little more cunning, he might have managed more than one paycheck. He is spectacular as Prince Herbert, whose heart beats to a different drummer, and equally fabulous as Not Dead Fred, who keeps being dragged to the plague-town death-carts despite the fact that he’s…well, you guessed it. (Davis and Gurr also do terrific jobs in multiple roles)
Best of all – and it is not a term I use lightly – is Esther Stilwell, who plays the Lady of the Lake. Stilwell, whose smile could illuminate the National’s lofty reaches all by itself, has an operatic voice and radiates a charismatic persona which accomplishes the objective of every musical since – well, since King Arthur: to melt the audience’s heart.
Spamalot is a full-scale assault on the fourth wall, and so it should be no shock that something happens to an audience member. At least, I think he was an audience member. But he was so self-possessed that I wasn’t sure. So: Jared Davis, if you’re reading this and you were an audience member – very cool indeed, sir. And if you’re reading this and you’re an actor – even better, man.
- Running time:2:20, including one intermission.
- Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in Washington
- When: Tuesdays through Sundays until January 6. Tuesday through Saturday evening shows at 8 p.m.; Sunday evening shows are at 7.30. There are 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. No show on December 25 or January 1, but there will be a 7 p.m. show on December 31.
- Tickets: $46.50 to $96.50, with premium seats at $151.50 and $176.50, exclusive of service charges. You can purchase tickets at the National Theatre Box office, by calling 800.447.7400 or at http://www.telecharge.com/. For groups of 20 or more, call 866.2947.
- Information: 202.628.6161 or http://www.nationaltheatre.org/.
Amuse yourselves with some excellent video clips from the Broadway production here.