Monty Python’s Spamalot now at The National Theatre for its brief and final visit to DC, is a musical romp through a favorite film that shouldn’t be missed. A delight we’re lucky to have back in town after its visit to The Warner last spring, this production puts a new spin on a classic in more ways than one.
First, the 2005 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical’s visit to DC marks the beginning of an initiative to revitalize the historic theater’s programming. Founded in 1835, The National Theatre has showcased the likes of Warren Beatty, Sir Laurence Olivier, and Katharine Hepburn, but has largely lain dark in recent years. Starting with Spamalot this week and David Stone’s new work If /Then next fall, however, the theatre plans to put itself back on the roadmap to and from Broadway.
Second, the show itself is a loony visitation from the characters of John Cleese, Terry Gillian, and the Monty Python collective’s beloved 1975 cinematic take on Arthurian Legend. For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth a watch on its own merits, but not necessary to understand the show. Spamalot is a faithful reenacment of the movie’s best jokes, with more stage time for some favorite characters, and fantastic musical numbers that stand completely on their own clever lunacy.
Like the movie, the play follows the misadventures of Arthur, King of the Britons (Arthur Rowan), and his ramshackle retinue of knights (along with his faithful baggage-carrier Patsy, played by the elvin and adorable Glenn Giron) in their quest for the Holy Grail. The plot is retailored minorly to fit the demands of a human ensemble—King Arthur recruits commoners and converts them into knights, an accomodation of doubling—but in general, the film’s plot is faithfully reproduced.
In their wanderings, the knights encounter various zany antagonists including the Knights Who Say Ni, the Black Knight, and some rude French guards, often incorporating much-loved dialogue directly from the film.
Beyond being merely repeated, some of the film’s favorite bits are expanded in the play. For example, after the French guards drive Arthur off with a verbatim reenactment of perhaps the movie’s most-quoted exchange (“your mother was a hamster…”) and find the Trojan Bunny, they invite their castle’s denizens—a mime, some can-can dancers, and a jaded artiste—out to see “our new work of art.”
In a few instances, this technique runs dangerously close to belaboring jokes beyond the delicate balance between ad nauseum and ad infinitum. For example, in his expanded time onstage, the frail Sir Herbert actually gets a chance to sing the song eternally denied him onscreen, sacrificing that particular trope. However, this is an isolated incident, and in general, Monty Python original member Eric Idle’s adaptation is wrought with a keen sense of what reenactments work, and what don’t (notably, the castle of naughty nurses is only glancingly referenced onstage, rather than taking up a whole scene as it does in the movie).
There’s also a lot of new content for both old fans of the film and newcomers to Monty Python’s quirky brand of historiography alike to delight in. Without giving too much away, some minor characters in the movie receive a lot more love when the curtain goes up. Those who think they know their Arthurian Romance should stay tuned for what’s under Sir “Dance-a-lot’s” suit of mail, while the Lady of the Lake and her “Grail Girls” lead the story’s charge into the Broadway Musical genre in tights and sparkling leotards.
Onstage, the Flying Circus‘ penchant for zany self-referentiality seizes on a whole new medium to mock. The Lady of the Lake, (in the production I saw, Melissa Chaty was the glittering Everydiva who primps or scowls based on how much stagetime she receives), sings a suite of archetypal beladonna favorites including “The Song That Goes Like This” (with reprise) and “The Diva’s Lament,” while “Find Your Grail” functions as the typical pick-me-up-motivational tune for down-and-out but determined characters, here accompanied by strobe lights and slow-motion running.
While these numbers assert Spamalot as a viable original musical in its own right, longtime favorites from the Monty Python oeuvre including “Knights of the Round Table” and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Life of Brian find a place of honor.
Monty Python’s Spamalot
Closes April 14, 2013
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $44 – $125
Friday thru Sunday
In this respect, The National Theatre flexes old but venerable mechanical muscle. The venue hosted world premieres of Showboat and West Side Story in its day, and it’s in both DC residents and tourists’ interests that “the theatre of presidents” climb back to its position of prominence among national venues.
It’s a pity for all American theatre fans that The National Theatre can’t hold a candle to the eponymous institution in Monty Python’s native Britain in terms of fostering waves of homegrown talent through commissions and new work development, but it’s at least a welcome change for our National Theatre to reclaim its role as a laboratory for some of Broadway’s next hits, and a sure stop on their tours.
Watching Arthur and his knights cavort onstage, in a world-class production that’s a side-splitting treat to watch, it’s easy to feel part of something, or several somethings: both the global celebration of a comic Golden Era, and DC’s continued rise as a theatre town worth talking about.
Monty Python’s Spamalot . Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle . Music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle . Original direction by Mike Nichols . Direction Recreated by BT McNicholl . Conducted by Emily Croome . Produced by Phoenix Entertainment . Reviewed by Robert Duffley