BWW Reviews: SPAMALOT Brings Old Jokes and New to Pittsburgh CLO
As I sat at the closing performance of the Pittsburgh CLO production of Monty Python's SPAMALOT: A new musical (lovingly) ripped off from the motion picture "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," the two men behind me were deeply involved in the show, quoting punchlines before they came, humming the tunes. Nobody minded- it's that kind of show.
Just in case the notoriously wordy full title of Spamalot didn't tip you off, this musical by Eric Idle and John Du Prez (based on the screenplay by the entire Python troupe) is at once an adaptation of, a tribute to, and a parody of, the legendary British comedy team. With slightly more plot than the legendary comic film, the thin story follows stalwart but slightly doddering King Arthur (played with surprisingly little ham by Broadway legend Tom Hewitt) and his Knights of the Round Table as they go about a seemingly arbitrary series of mounting quests- locate more knights, go to Camelot, find the Holy Grail, produce a Broadway musical, get married... and even, in one of the daffier sub-plots, find at least one Jew. Along the way, he is alternately helped and hindered by The Lady of the Lake (Elizabeth Stanley, of John Doyle's Company), a supernatural being who is also a diva performer. Arthur and his knights encounter many unusual and humorous characters and creatures on their journey, all of whom are played by the actors making up the main group of knights.
When Spamalot was first built for the stage, the varied character tracks were built not only around the doubling of roles in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but also around the talents of the original all-star cast. Thus, the Sir Lancelot track (which doubles the French Taunter, the king of the Knights of Ni and Tim the Enchanter), designed for famous voiceover artist Hank Azaria, is made up of less dance-heavy or slapstick-inclined roles, all of which have ridiculous accents. In these side roles, Adam Pelty shines even more than his suitably gruff Lancelot. Pelty goes for broke particularly well as the bizarre Knight of Ni, milking the notorious "ecky-ecky-ecky" monologue into an improvised string of non-sequiturs quoting everything from "Thanks for the Memories" to Darth Vader. Watching Hewitt try his hardest to not only recall the entire sequence, but to then repeat it with a straight face, genuinely recalled the anarchic, corpsing-heavy live style of the Pythons. As his usual counterpart, playing Sir Robin, an incompetent guard and the monk Brother Maynard, Jeremy Webb departs significantly from David Hyde Pierce's shadow. While the character track is usually played as the brains of the group, with a frequently stuffy attitude, Webb reinvents the characters as easily excitable buffoons, to hilarious effect. He even departs from Hyde Pierce's Harpo-esque piano routine, designed for the virtuoso actor-pianist, to deliver a series of riffs on Fiddler on the Roof with the help of Robin's ubiquitous rubber chicken. Special mention must also be given to Robert Creighton and Brian Shepard, who play several comic roles but truly shine when their allotted dance solos arrive. It's sometimes hard to believe that the coconut-clapping clown and the masterful tap dancer are the same performer- the same character, even- when novelty-song standard "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" turns into an extended solo dance sequence for Creighton as Arthur's squire Patsy.
In the nominal lead role, Tom Hewitt is a pro, of course, but somewhat underused playing the straight man in a show that essentially boils down to a series of vaudeville sketches. Only rarely does he get a chance to let his huge voice loose, reined in by a vocal role written for mostly speaking in time. Similarly, Elizabeth Stanley is only sparingly deployed (much to her character's chagrin) as the Lady of the Lake. The male ensemble members are given plenty to do as knights, gamblers, bottle dancers and other bit roles. However, as is traditional to Monty Python, the female ensemble appear mostly as indistinguishable sex objects, dancing and providing the customary "entertainment for the tired businessman." Nonetheless, Tim Hatley's original costume plots, as coordinated by Gail Baldoni, cleverly recall the "sexually repressed nuns" scene from the movie, which no longer appears onstage. Although adding the scene back in would have bloated the second act and made Lancelot's character's denouement less clear in this adaptation, it would at least have given the women in the ensemble a chance to do something other than dance in push-up bras for two hours.
For fans of Monty Python, Spamalot is a double treat, guaranteed to bring back the bits most loved but with additions, changes, twists and turns designed to keep things fresh. For those for whom the Killer Rabbit or debates over which species of swallow could best carry a coconut across the Atlantic Ocean, the show still provides enough singing, dancing, and meta-referential Broadway humor to please just about anyone. Those with little sense of humor need not apply.