BWW Review: 1,600 Words About Why You Should Go See SPAMALOT At Studio Tenn
Whether it's seeing Matt Logan as King Arthur galumphing around onstage, as if astride a horse with Garris Wimmer not far behind providing the necessary sound effects with two halves of one empty coconut shell, or watching Jake Speck, as a feckless wannabe Knight of the Round Table, crap his pants anytime he hears a threatening sound or encounters the menacing Black Knight (or anyone else who might say "boo" to the goose who is Sir Robin), or any other manner of zany characters who find themselves right smack in the middle of the most ridiculous of situations - Monty Python's Spamalot, now in an altogether splendid production from Studio Tenn, will supply you with plenty of laughs and/or the fodder to keep you amusingly sated until the next time you need a good guffaw or two.
It's an ideal season-ender for the 2016-17 slate of shows from Studio Tenn (the very same folks who started off their year with lofty aspirations, what with their co-production of Evita with the rather august, perhaps even stolid and staid, Tennessee Performing Arts Center - a critically acclaimed collaboration), Spamalot is howlingly funny and charmingly silly, performed to riotous levels of hijinks and hilarity by director Kim Bretton's estimable band of merry mirthmakers, who bring the show to life with a sense of reckless abandon to ensure audiences will be talking about it for weeks, if not months (heck, we'd even say years, but that might be too cute by half) to come.
The show's scenic design - from the remarkable team of artists known as Matt Logan and Mitch White - is grandly theatrical, a blending of smoke, mirrors and ingeniously engineered and gorgeously crafted set pieces (amid the evocative and show-businessy lighting design of Stephen Moss that artfully illuminates the proceedings) which provide the audience with a visual abundance upon which to feast when they aren't laughing out loud at the uproarious, perhaps unbelievable but completely welcome, events playing out before them.
Bretton, a Brit (who, as such, possesses the requisite bona fides to helm the production), delivers the goods in ways far too numerous to count - there are visual puns galore (including a tricycle-powered pedal tavern in an obvious and affectionate nod to the production's Music City pedigree and a chorus boy clad in a Spam costume, even if it wasn't until I started writing this review that his significance came to mind, so help me Brian) and writer/creator Eric Idle's libretto is wonderfully off-kilter in the way one would only expect from a show inspired by Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the notable and we daresay beloved 1975 film still venerated by its fans.
Bretton keeps the onstage action moving at such a frenetic/frantic/fluid (choose your own adjective in our new interactive form of theatrical review) pace that the crick/pain/twinge in your neck the morning after might actually be whiplash from watching the story unfold before your very eyes (and to the left) and not because of the obstructed view from your seat so far to house right than you became part of the structure of Jamison Hall at The Factory in Franklin.
Like a tennis match between two world champions (think Serena Williams and Roger Federer going at it on a clay court in Paris and you've got the correct notion for this day and age of gender parity and sportsmanlike non-comformity) or like thoroughbreds running to the wire at Churchill Downs (which proves topical given the early days of May), Monty Python's Spamalot is a breathtaking spectacle. Colorful and clever, with enough over-the-top drama supplied by the show's primary diva - the Lady in the Lake, brought to life with regal archness by Laura Matula, who loudly and lavishly laments her lack of a real dramatic arc in the two-acts of ribald wackiness - and by the histrionics of Arthur's ragtag band of brothers who accompany him on his journey to find the Holy Grail, Spamalot ensures that you simply cannot look away.
Bretton's sure-handed direction somehow manages to keep all the moving parts and people of the cast moving in the same direction (most of the time, at least, when they should be!) ensuring some sweet moments and heartfelt instances amid the high-speed antics of the tale. Emily Tello Speck's impeccable artistry shines in her choreography for the members of the show's top-notch ensemble, whose high-energy movements are flashy, sassy and, perhaps, dangerous enough to elicit gasps while they're onstage.
Stephen Kummer's orchestra for the show, featuring some of Music City's finest musicians, perform the show's score with a deft skill that provides a strong musical basis for the production. It's a part of the overall scheme of things that trumpets any Studio Tenn production.
The plot is outrageous, walking a fine line between raucous bad taste and good-natured, if over-the-top fun for more than two hours, which it would have to be to pay adequate homage to the source material. There's enough sophomoric humor and self-referential comedy to delight everyone in the audience, from the crassest suburban dad whose SUV idles in the parking lot throughout the show to the least susceptible - and possibly least suspecting - socialite in the stalls, drinking her Chardonnay while nibbling from a brown bag filled to the brim with fried chicken and pate.
Yet there are plenty of theatrical in-jokes to make it a favorite of the chattering class - aka the theaterati - and enough gay references to satisfy a giggle of queens stopping in for some post-brunch laughs, high on a post-show recollection of the latest drama from The Real Housewives of Atlanta or news of the latest Queen Voted off RuPaul's Drag Race. In fact, you might say that Spamalot has plenty to laugh about no matter who you are, what your background might be and/or however sophisticated you might consider yourself. The humor is broad (jokes about Jews on Broadway, for instance), to be certain, but it is never malicious. It's biting, sure, but you never feel the sting of any mean-spiritedness. It's just a hell of a lot of fun!
Bretton's done a bang-up job with her superb cast of actors: Logan is perfect as King Arthur, ideally holier than thou but with a sense of impishness underscoring his every movement and a total lack of regard for his put-upon knights and the other subjects of the land who have no clue they voted him into office (who, for Christ's sake, would ever believe anyone could have become king because some chick in a bog threw a sword in his direction?). Logan very confidently plays his character with a sense of gravitas that makes his more outlandish actions all the more appealing and definitely funnier than they could have possibly been in lesser hands.
As Sir Robin, Speck displays an actor's versatility that can be easily forgotten as he judiciously performs his duties as the company's executive producer. But when he trades in his tailored suits for a knight's armor and sets off to find a religious artifact at God's behest, he becomes a thespian performing a comic tour de force with focus and commitment. As Sir Robin finds his calling on Broadway - even if it's several centuries and thousands of miles away from the play's setting - Speck is given the opportunity to show off his own song-and-dance skills, reminding audiences and lifelong fans of how he got his start in musical theater. Also, seeing him poop his pants every few minutes is pretty damn funny, so there's that.
Matula makes the most of her time as the spirited Lady in the Lake, performing her songs with her requisite theatricality and self-assurance, and she commands the stage with as much stage presence as the venue can possibly withstand. Her performance with Mike Baum (as Sir Dennis Galahad) of "The Song That Goes Like This" is nothing short of wondrous, beautifully delivered and tremendously beguiling. And she clearly cuts a winning figure in Tim Hatley's glittering gowns and showbiz threads that sets her apart from the hoi polloi.
Wimmer is delightful as Arthur's galloping major domo Patsy, his wide-eyed wonderment adding layers of texture and style to his performance and his attempt to cheer his liege with "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" results in the audience's spirit being lifted even more than expected. Joe Beuerlein, as Sir Lancelot, very nearly steals every scene he is in, culminating with the hilarious "His Name is Lancelot" production number in which he is outed (in glitzy showbiz style, of course) to a vaguely hysterical disco beat, replete with fey chorus boys in rainbow-colored hues and a terrific Matthew Rosenbaum assaying the role of the fair Prince Herbert who provides him with an ideal paramour with whom to close out the show.
Thomas DeMarcus plays Sir Belvedere - he of the foiled Trojan Bunny plot - with a flourish (as he should, having played the role on the national tour of Spamalot for many months, if not years) and he's thoroughly convincing as the overbearing Mrs. Galahad. Mike Baum is terrific as Sir Galahad, which should come as no surprise to anyone who follows local theater: he's an accomplished leading man who is a convincing character actor with a gorgeous voice.
Monty Python's Spamlot. Book and lyrics by Eric Idle. Music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle. Directed by Kim Bretton. Choreographed by Emily Tello Speck. Musical direction by Stephen Kummer. Presented by Studio Tenn, at Jamison Hall at The Factory in Franklin. Through May 21. For tickets, call the box office at (615) 541-8200, or go online at www.StudioTenn.com. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).