We Americans have no creation myth (although sometimes we mythologize our creation) but Britain, having staggered forth fifteen hundred years before we did, does, and it is the legend of Arthur. In the legends of Arthur, this fifth-century King, having united the Britons in their battles against the Saxons, is thereafter charged with recovering the Holy Grail (the vessel in which Christ changed wine to His blood), and with various other impossible missions. It is a story of nobility, of honor, of bone courage, and of passion – the story, in short, of how the English character was formed.
Well, screw all that. In Monty Python’s Spamalot, we celebrate the complete disintegration of the British creation myth, its reduction to absurdity, and – in the production currently at Toby Dinner Theatre’s Columbia digs – a fabulously tasty dinner.
This last element is important. An evening at the theater is a full experience, and if the production is good but it is five hours long and we are forced to sit on pointy chairs, or seats which are too small, we will not be happy at the end. At Toby’s, a multiple Helen Hayes Award winner, they take their theater seriously, and their food – served buffet style – seriously as well. It is almost impossible to leave there unhappy, and you will not leave unhappy after Spamalot.
In the legend, Arthur puts out a call for knights, and brave warriors flock to him like lobbyists flocking to a newly-elected Congressman. But Spamalot’s Arthur (Larry Munsey) is a lonely King, accompanied only by his faithful manservant and pack horse Patsy (Jeffrey Shankle). His efforts to find a host of knights is largely jeered, especially by Galahad (Nick Lehan), or “Dennis”, as he insists on being called, a tenth-century Marxist theorist. (Spamalot is a little ahistorical, having moved the Arthurian legend forward in time by about four hundred years, and spotting the narratives with plagues, which didn’t come about for another two hundred years). Arthur is forced to summon the Lady of the Lake (the lissome and charismatic Priscilla Cueller) in order to show his authority, and it is only after she and Galahad sing the outrageously self-conscious “The Song that Goes Like This” that Galahad puts on his true identity as a knight and a hero.
Of course, before we have this bit of nonsense we much have much other nonsense – a tweedy academic (David James) who periodically appears to provide exposition; an inexplicable chorus line of colorfully dressed folks who hit each other with fish and sing “The Fisch Schlapping Song”, (the academic finally runs on stage and explains, “I said England, not Finland”) and a cart full of plague victims, including Fred (James again) who, as he repeatedly points out, is Not Dead. Not Dead Fred actually manages to rally the other plague victims to life, much to the annoyance of the bureaucrats charged with rounding them up, who eventually go after them with the flat side of their shovels.
And there is much nonsense afterward. The legendary Camelot turns out to be a lot like Vegas; the Lady of the Lake’s minions (the “Laker Girls”) turn into Vegas showgirls, and the Knights are having a high old time until the voice of God (the voice of Eric Idle) instructs Arthur to find the Holy Grail. The quest is, to understate it, a little diffuse. Sir Lancelot (David Jennings) discovers that the damsel he is rescuing is actually Prince Herbert (the ubiquitous James). The Lady of the Lake decides she hasn’t had enough stage time and sings “The Diva’s Lament.” Sir Robin (Darren McDonnell) discovers that his principal knightly virtue is…musical comedy.
This turns out to be useful, as one of the quests which the Knights Who Say “Ni!” put Arthur on is to stage a Broadway Musical. It was a particularly Meta moment om the original production, since Spamalot was born on Broadway (as any play written by Eric Idle might be), but it works just as well at Toby’s. Needless to say, they eventually find the Holy Grail. I dasn‘t tell you how they do it, but it involves an audience member. In the production I saw, the audience member was Samuel Dye (phonetic), a lad of about eight or so who handled the task with such blasé assurance that I am forced to assume that he finds the Holy Grail every month and a half or so.
If you have seen Spamalot before, it has probably been on a large stage. It’s much more challenging to perform it in a dinner theater, where everything happens fifty feet or so away from you. But Toby’s pulls it off. Even the most special of the special effects – when King Arthur shears off the arms and legs of the Black Knight (Lehan) (“I’m fine,” the Black Knight says. “Come on and fight, you pansy.”) – is done effectively.
The cast does this production with its collective tongue firmly in cheek, which is appropriate for the text and does not interfere with the singing. In Toby’s Les Misérables, Munsey effectively played the tortured Inspector Javert but here he is relaxed and cheerful, except when he is relaxed and depressed. It’s infectious; a lovely sense of unreality prevails, even when such real-life dangers as cows being flung over castle walls and huge, carnivorous rabbits threaten.
MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT
Closes March 23, 2014
Toby’s Dinner Theatre
5900 Symphony Woods Road
2 hours, 35 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $51 – $56 (includes dinner)
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Shankle provides a center of gravity with the long-suffering Patsy; the knights are suitably ridiculous; and James and Shawn Kettering, among others, show great separation and distinction while playing several roles. Cuellar pushes the comic limits of her character but does not go over the top, and brightens the stage whenever she appears.
The costumes (originally designed by Tim Hatley) are marvelous; the choreography over the small available space is superb and the direction is sharp and purposeful (Mark Minnick was both director and choreographer). The music, which Idle wrote with John du Prez, is not complicated but musical director Ross Scott Rawlings has created a pleasing sound.
The legend of King Arthur remains an important part of the collective memory of English-speaking people nine hundred years after Geoffrey of Monmouth first put it down on paper. I do not think that the legend of Monty Python’s Spamalot will have such a lengthy shelf life. But I’ll bet that several days after you see the show you’ll find yourself humming “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life” and remembering, with a smile, the nonsense that is Spamalot.
Monty Python’s Spamalot . book and lyrics by Eric Idle with music by Idle and John du Prez . directed and choreographed by Mark Minnick with musical direction and orchestrations by Ross Scott Rawlings . featuring David James, Jeffrey Shankle (who also served as Assistant Director), Lawrence B. Munsey, Darren McDonnell, David Jennings, Nick Lehan, Shawn Kettering, Priscilla Cueller, Ben Gibson, Ariel Messeca, Danny Tippett, Heather Beck, Jay Garrick, Jimmy Mavrikes, A.J. Whittenberger, Michelle Brandenberg, Amanda Kaplan, Rachel Kemp, Jamie Ogdon, and the voice of Eric Idle. David Hopkins was the scenic designer, Tim Hatley was the original costume designer, Coleen M. Foley was the lighting designer, Kate Wackerle was the production manager and along with Drew Dedrick served as stage manager. Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.