REVIEW: Good Knight and Goodbye, SPAMALOT! (Tour Ends 10/18)
ORANGE COUNTY, CA—If you have not had any prior or much exposure to the absurdist comedy of Monty Python before, don't fear (or, worse, soil your pants and run away). Not knowing anything from their decades-long catalog of shtick will not prevent you from enjoying MONTY PYTHON'S SPAMALOT, one of the funniest musicals ever to grace the main stage of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. But it helps.
Monty Python—a pseudonym created by the revered British comedy team made up of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin—is the kind of fictional world that encourages a rabid cult following much like Star Wars, Star Trek and the Harry Potter-verse. It inspires verbatim quoting and fans simply "getting" the kind of humor that is funny for its own sake. The ultimate goal for this show is to have the audience rolling in the aisles, and they succeed without bothering with a pesky little thing called exposition. Why does King Arthur "ride" around horseless, but instead is trailed by a loyal assistant clicking two coconuts to produce the click-clack of a galloping horse? Because it's funny! Why does the Lady of the Lake have a troupe of back-up dancers called The Laker Girls? Because it's funny! And why would a bunch of French guards taunt and tease with vulgar abandon, then cap off their assault by (literally) tossing cows at their enemies? Because it's funny!
Self-described as a musical "lovingly ripped-off" from the cult hit film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, SPAMALOT is a musical melange of all the of the funniest bits from (mostly) the film as well as from their oeuvre of silly madcap vignettes found in other Monty Python movies and their popular British TV series The Flying Circus. The plot is secondary (and quite thin—but is inconsequential to the show's brilliance), though there is one: With England plagued by, well, The Plague, Arthur—King of the Britons—sets out to recruit knights throughout his Kingdom to bring order to chaos. After yielding a few, um, interesting candidates, God (in the form of a pair of giant, rocket-powered feet voiced by John Cleese) assigns King Arthur and his knights a quest: find the missing Holy Grail. Apparently—as hilariously observed by Sir Robin—the Almighty has "misplaced the cup" that His Son drank from during the last supper. The quest yields amusing encounters with a beautiful Lake-residing diva with a penchant for over-emoting, some vulgar French taunters, a few Knights that randomly say "Ni" (again, senseless, but incredibly funny), and even a killer rabbit.
There are many standout numbers throughout the show, all played to great comic effect. Once the knights have been rounded up, they all converge on Camelot—here done cheekily Vegas-style, complete with showgirls, dancing monks and nuns, a round table redesigned as a roulette wheel, and a castle that suspiciously looks like the candy-colored Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas. Sir Robin leads a Fiddler On The Roof-style chorus line of rabbi-knights (you'll have to see the show to learn the hilarious context) in "You Won't Succeed on Broadway..." In a sweet homage to Singin' In The Rain, the Knights twirl and leap to the signature tune of "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life." And perhaps, most notably the night's standout moment, the Lady of the Lake (played with grace, beauty and a 'one-of-the-boys' bravado by powerhouse belter Merle Dandridge) leads a standout production number with the entire cast in "Find Your Grail."
Besides the uproarious score by John Du Prez and Eric Idle (Idle also wrote the amusing book for the musical), the brisk choreography by Casey Nicholaw, and the snappy direction by Tony® winner Mike Nichols, the national tour's cast provides much of the comic genius on display on stage. These final two weeks of the tour feature the return of John O'Hurley to the role of King Arthur. The TV personality (Seinfeld, Dancing with the Stars, current host of Family Feud) is an amusing comic foil, an able "straight man" to the crazier characters that populate the show alongside him. Jeff Dumas is a charming, sprightly wing-man as Patsy. In such a male-dominated musical, Dandridge distinguishes herself with her delightful parody of the Broadway diva (she channels everyone from Jennifer Holliday to Cher, and even busts out a little "Ella... Ella... Ella..." from Rihanna).
Ben Davis (Sir Galahad), James Beaman (Sir Robin), Christopher Gurr (Sir Bedevere) and Matthew Greer (Sir Lancelot) all provide great laughs as the four main knights of the round table. Greer, in particular, is the show's hardworking chameleon, disappearing into several standout roles, including the main French "Taunter," the head Knight of Ni and Tim the Enchanter. He is also able to play Lancelot in the second act's not-so-shocking revelation not as an unfortunate stereotype, but as a sweet guy the audience roots for. The remainder of the cast is filled out by an incredibly robust ensemble. Whether dancing or playing (not yet) dead, they are utterly alive and amusing.
To keep the long-running show fresh, improvised lines that relate to current pop culture (or which city the tour happens to be playing in) are sprinkled throughout the show. At the time of this particular performance, David Letterman's unfortunate on-air confession that aired just a few days before became a show-stopping speech from the Knight of Ni. There are even moments that occur that feel like a live taping of a Saturday Night Live skit where the actors attempt their best to not break the fourth wall and laugh at their own droll lines. Overall, the cast looks about as amused with the material as we are watching them. It's that performer-audience chemistry that makes for a popular hit like SPAMALOT.
It took almost four years to get here, but now that the time is here, it's bittersweet to think that the tour is coming to an end. After October 18, the singing knights of King Arthur's round table will finally be hanging up their armor and chain mail, and those French castle guards will cease hurling their last insults (not to mention a cow or two). On behalf of all the cities, big and small, that have been graced by this entertaining stage show, thank you for the gift of musical comedy genius. Now, let's all go out and find some shrubbery!
To learn more about life on the road with SPAMALOT from cast members Paula Wise and Christopher Gurr, click here.
Photo of the final national tour cast of Monty Python's Spamalot by Joan Marcus.