BWW Reviews: MTW Serves Up Hilarious Regional Production of SPAMALOT
Someone once told me, perhaps in jest, that laughing heartily is actually a good abdominal workout. While I'm still looking for my six-pack to miraculously emerge much like the long-missing holy grail, I am pretty damn sure I got lots of crunches in while watching Musical Theatre West's hilarious regional premiere of the Tony-winning musicAl Monty Python's SPAMALOT. Full of silly humor and absurdist gags that will have you laughing throughout the show, MTW's latest top-notch production plays at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach through July 15.
One of the most amusing shows MTW has ever mounted, there are lots—and I mean Spamalots (sorry)—to love about this impressive, entertaining show. Aside from the jolly-good score by John Du Prez and Eric Idle (the latter of whom also wrote the joke-heavy book for the musical), MTW's impressive production, helmed by MTW's own artistic director Steven Glaudini, repurposes the very same original sets, costumes, and animated projections that were featured on the Tony-winning Broadway hit. And, as to be expected, the show employs an absolutely amazing, hard-working ensemble cast—many of whom take on multiple, distinctively memorable roles.
But perhaps this 2005 Best Musical Tony winner's strongest asset is, really, its comic origins. Proudly touting itself as a musical "lovingly ripped-off" from the cult hit film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, SPAMALOT is a conveyor belt of some of the funniest, most well-known bits from the movie, as well as from a few other madcap vignettes found in other Monty Python movies and their popular British TV series The Flying Circus.
The musical is much like a cult-baiting buffet of the infamous comedy troupe's unique brand of out-there humor. Though prior knowledge of their oeuvre isn't necessary to enjoy the show, it certainly helps. You will find yourself surrounded by grown men giddy over the familiar sight of King Arthur and his trusty footman galloping the countryside sans horses (but with two hollow coconuts clicked together to produce horse hooves sounds). Or how about the gigantic forest Knights that say "Ni" demanding a shrubbery? And let's not forget the insanity of seeing flying cows, a ravenous bunny, a vulgar, taunt-filled Frenchman, and, of course, the giant feet of the Almighty Himself (who appears in the form of a pair of giant, rocket-powered feet as seen in many Monty Python's sketches). They've even made room for new sight-gags: What about a whiz-bang production number in a Vegas-y Camelot or in a lake featuring cheer-chanting "Lake-r" girls?
The plot is, natch, not really that important—though, it should be noted, that the lack of a solid one doesn't at all take away from the show's comedic brilliance. Here's all you really need to know: England is plagued by, well, The Plague. Arthur—King of the Britons (played with delicious charm by Davis Gaines)—sets out to recruit knights throughout his Kingdom to bring some kind of order to all the chaos. They will all eventually sit at the Round Table at Camelot.
Accompanied by his servant and coconut-tapper Patsy (Jamie Torcellini), his travels yield a few, uh, interesting candidates: the dashing Sir Galahad (Dan Callaway), the oft-scared Sir Robin (Larry Raben), the confused Sir Lancelot (Zachary Ford), and the portly Sir Belvedere (Danny Stiles). Cheered on by the divalicious Lady of the Lake (the über-fantastic Tami Tappan Damiano), the newly-formed team is assigned a quest by God himself: locate the infamous, "misplaced" Holy Grail. Along the way, they have run-ins with bitchy taunters, murderous villains, and even bouts of self-doubt.
A show rife with cheesy-clever puns, non-sensical absurdities, and side-splitting meta self-awareness, SPAMALOT revels in its unapologetic silliness and its way of lovingly making fun of the conventions of the Broadway musical. You can really tell that the cast is having fun with this material, as they should.
Even if you don't necessarily "get" this kind of dry, very British humor, you will laugh your (hopefully not soiled) arses off at all the weird silliness. The whole show is pure fun… just because.
While watching the show's opening night performance, I actually thought this production was even more joyful than the last round of shows presented by the national touring company—possibly because it felt like watching a local sports team playing for a hometown crowd. Audio and lighting mishaps aside, the show is a resounding success primarily because there was a palpable buoyant energy coming from both sides of the orchestra pit (and, speaking of the orchestra, they were damn robust). The show boasts many standout numbers throughout the show, all played with the emphasis on tongue-in-cheek.
Not surprisingly, MTW has assembled yet another stellar cast for their SPAMALOT—many of whom are familiar MTW vets. The ensemble is valiantly led by PHANTOM OF THE OPERA's Gaines, who now morphs into his third starring role here at MTW—definitely proving to be quite a frequent, welcome presence. At one point, he even acknowledges his most recent role at MTW—Don Quixote in their recent incredible production of MAN OF LA MANCHA—with a knowing wink when "Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Show" (who looks remarkably like Don Quixote) shows up, only to turn right around and walk away.
"Been there, done that," Gaines slyly comments to the audience. Oh, yes he did.
Besides Gaines, the show features an energetic supporting cast. Torcellini (as Patsy) and Richard Israel (who plays several roles including Prince Herbert) provide some of the biggest laughs. Callaway, Raben, Ford and Stiles all provide great laughs individually and as a collective, playing the four main knights of the round table. Ford, in particular, proves to be the quite the hardworking chameleon. Aside from playing Sir Lancelot, he morphs effortlessly into several breakout roles throughout the show, including the main French "Taunter," the leader of the Knights-Who-Say-Ni and Tim the (flying) Enchanter.
And proving she's a force to be reckoned with, the show gets some much-welcome female energy from the jaw-droppingly good Tappan-Damiano, who as the Lady of the Lake easily steals the show with every divalicious appearance. In perhaps the show's notably standout moment, this powerhouse belter—and wonderful comedienne—leads an epic production number with the entire cast in "Find Your Grail." Then later, she returns to a bare stage to sing "Diva's Lament" asking why she hasn't made an appearance in the show in quite some time (and in the show's tradition of inserting pop culture references, she expresses anger that she's often passed over for the likes of Lindsay Lohan). Seriously, the things this lady can do with her amazing pipes—channeling everyone from Jennifer Holliday to Celine Dion all in one stanza—is just staggering! Wow, and I mean... WOW. No wonder Seth Rudetsky has praised her musical prowess on YouTube.
The remainder of the cast is filled out by an incredibly robust ensemble. Whether dancing up a (rain) storm or playing (not yet) dead, they all make it look like being in the show is the best, most enjoyable job in the world. I mean, just try to resist smiling (and humming along) during "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life." Really, try… I dare you.
Overall, MTW's production of SPAMALOT is a guaranteed laugh-riot. A silly, wonderful romp, MTW should be proud of their latest musical offering. It's such a genuinely entertaining production that the only thing I can nitpick, really, is the show's unfortunate use of its almost humorously out-of-control fog machine (maybe it was part of the joke, but I highly doubt it). Is there a setting in the darn thing to cut it down a bit? Maybe it's time to get some more shrubbery to disperse it better? In this particular show, I won't be surprised if it's possible.
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Photos by Alysa Brennan. From top: King Arthur (Davis Gaines) shows off Excalibur; the Lady of the Lake (Tami Tappan Damiano) emerges; King Arthur (Gaines) assembles his quest team (Zachary Ford, Larry Raben, Dan Callaway, Danny Stiles & Jaime Torcellini); a French taunter (Ford) insults the King of the Britons.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's Monty Python's SPAMALOT continue through Sunday, July 15 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $20. There is a $3 service charge per ticket. Prices are subject to change without notice. Group rates are available for 15 or more.
Musical Theatre West performs at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA.
For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.