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January 18, 2005

Spamalot strikes perfect balance by revering, expanding comedy classic

As both a Monty Python and a Mike Nichols fangirl, I was doubly excited for the Chicago stint of Monty Python's Spamalot at the Shubert Theatre. The idea of turning one of the most enduring cult comedies into a musical is insane, to say the least, so I suppose original Monty Python star Eric Idle felt it just had to be done.

Spamalot is based on the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which centers around King Arthur and his ragtag band of knights— -- Sirs Lancelot, Bedivere, Galahad, and Robin (the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Lancelot), who travel through neo-absurdist situations in order to fulfill God's mission and find the Holy Grail. The musical has retained much of the original material and scenes, but Idle and director Mike Nichols have injected some song-and-dance into the anarchist comedy to create a crackpot conglomeration that's not without its rough patches, yet entertaining enough to be fully enjoyable.

So how does one go about satirizing both the Middle Ages and the American Broadway tradition? Step one: Know your source. Holy Grail produced scores of classically funny scenes, such as the peasant conversation about swallow migration and coconuts, the infamous taunting at the French castle, the demand for shrubbery by the Knights Who Say "Ni," and the duel between King Arthur (played by the powerfully funny and resilient Tim Curry) and the Black Knight (newcomer Christopher Sieber, who doubles as a fresh-faced Sir Dennis Galahad). During the show, I could feel the thrill of the audience whenever a familiar scene was about to begin; it's that magic of knowing what the characters onstage are going to say and realizing you are still going to laugh until you cry, just like you did when you first saw the movie.

Step two: Use the humo(u)r that's in front of you. The original film was already a mishmash of antiquity and modernity, and this production packs as much glitz into the whimsy as possible, turning Camelot into a modern-day Vegas affair, complete with neon lights and scantily dressed chorus girls. For example, the Lady of the Lake (superb vocalist Sara Ramirez) is a young diva who guides the knights on their quest. And although the scene where Lancelot (Hank Azaria) rescues a damsel-in-distress -- —only to find out "she" is a nancy-boy prince— -- was also in the movie, here it is followed up by a "coming-out" affair in which Lancelot dances around in a rhinestone-covered codpiece with Prince Herbert (a wickedly ponce-y Christian Borle), topped off with a gay wedding at the end.

There are, of course, the constant and almost proud allusions to its own anachronisms, culminating in a scene in the second act where the Knights Who Formerly Said "Ni" tell King Arthur his new mission is to make a Broadway show. Sir Robin (David Hyde Pierce, veteran comedic actor) responds with this lament: "You Won't Succeed on Broadway if You Don't Have Any Jews." The Lady of the Lake tells him later that he is already on Broadway...well, Broadway in Chicago. This can come off as either pointless or tongue-in-cheek, but here it works well given the already goofy context.

Step three: Mix thoroughly. Spamalot is, in many ways, a mess of flash and thrift. The play wavers from the initial devil-may-care nonchalance to meticulously choreographed musical numbers and back again. The characters are mostly two-dimensional, but that's what makes them funny -- —Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Lancelot never becomes brave, and King Arthur never acknowledges his faithful companion Patsy, singing "I'm All Alone" even though his erstwhile servant is right beside him the entire time, clopping his coconut halves despondently. The Lady of the Lake tells the knights to "Find Your Grail," but whether they do or do not in the end isn't really the point. Spamalot doesn't care about having seamless transitions or a serious message; it just wants to entertain you.

The music, written by Idle and John Du Prez, is a whirlwind of different Broadway styles, championed primarily by Ramirez, whose vocals soar and dip and resonate throughout the theatre. Some of the songs are unremarkable, while others are priceless—-- "The Song That Goes Like This," for example, is a frighteningly clever portrayal of song selection and placement in formulaic musicals. "Brave Sir Robin" is also a gem, morbid and sunny at the same time.

Despite a solid cast and exciting performances, the play suffers from several inconsistencies. There are several scenes where the production seems too slick, too busy, and overwhelms some of the more minimalist moments. Because a lot of the humo(u)r in Monty Python occurs through spoken word— -- not flashy incidents -- —it is difficult to reconcile the two aspects in this adaptation. The dancing girls and lighting effects do have a slightly directionless feel, but just as I could sense the play start to unravel (near the end of Act I, for the curious), it reverted back into classic Python farce. Spamalot's overall success depends on the constant oscillation between modern bombast and traditional British wit, and it works because of Idle's careful weaving, Du Prez's stylish musical numbers, and Nichols's tight direction.

The bottom line is this: If you are a Monty Python fan, it is nearly impossible to dislike Spamalot, just because the scenes and characters are so "lovingly ripped off," as the subtitle claims. At times it might resemble Singin' in the Rain on acid, but if the overall production can be smoothed out so that the capricious modern flavoring is spread evenly over vintage Python, this unique brew will be extremely potent.