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Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Monty Python's SpamalotBook & Lyrics by Eric Idle, Music by Eric Idle & John Du Prez
Directed by Mike Nichols
On Broadway at the Shubert Theatre

In short, it delivers. And here's one thing I thought I wouldn't say: thank god for the songs! Everything that is best about Spamalot is what's new, not what comes from the film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (in which, you may trust, Playgoer is well versed). Eric Idle and Mike Nichols have created something very distinct, something just a wee bit Python, and a lot... well, Mike Nichols.

As good and funny as Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce, and Tim Curry are in their own rights, what they offer in the "book" portions of the show is essentially a high-rent karaoke of the movie. Anyone familiar with the original only hears what's missing of the Pythons' inimitable insanity and the memory of hearing a line like "your father was a hamster and your mother smelled of elderberry" the first time. Anyone oblivious to said film might still chuckle at the silliness of all this transposed dialogue (and, admittedly, many in the audience do more than chuckle), but if this were a "straight" dramatization of Holy Grail the show just would not be a hot ticket. (The very words dramatization and Monty Python just do not go together somehow.)

Hence, my slight disappointment for the first twenty minutes of the show, which--after a zany, though labored, non-sequitur of a curtain raiser--rehashes some of the movie's opening scenes. But then Nichols's forty-plus years of Broadway showmanship take over, and for the remainder of Act One you are in Musical Comedy Heaven. While gags about NBA "Laker Girls", Vegas casinos, and Andrew Lloyd Webber may seem beneath the talent involved, they embrace the silly task with such gusto, sending everything up so energetically, efficiently, and improbably that you just bathe in the ridiculousness of it all. One reason is Nichols knows to keep moving on before overkill is reached. Another is the contribution of relative newcomer choreographer Casey Nicholaw; his employment of the entire range of musical theatre gestures--from the parading of leggy chorus girls to the angular thrusts of Jerome Robbins lunges--gives Spamalot that extra savvy and, frankly, pizzazz. It's one of the ironies of good parody that it must love and even outdo the original.

Not coincidentally, the show settles into this glorious groove with the entrance of an entirely new character, Sara Ramirez's Lady of the Lake. The size of Ramirez's presence bursts out of her from the moment she appears and never lets up; her intensity is totally serious and totally ludicrous and totally on key--in short, the most Pythonesque performer on the stage, surprisingly. (Her Act Two front-of-curtain diva-ballad "What Ever Happened to My Part" is the most hilarious of the show's many metatheatrical commentaries, mostly because Ramirez can both mock and sell what the number is referencing so expertly.)

So what happens in Act Two? More of the same, which is fine. But that magical momentum Nichols and Idle found for forty-odd minutes has gone. Perhaps the intermission helps to dissipate that, during which you observe everyone showing off their new Spamalot toys from the concession stand. (A cow-hurtling slingshot can't be gotten at just any show, after all.) Highlights follow, to be sure: David Hyde-Pierce pulls off Idle's provocative patter song "You Won't Succeed on Broadway (if you don't have any Jews)" in perfect Noel Coward/Rex Harrison throwaway style, until he is upstaged by one of Nicholaw's most outrageous coups: a line of hassidim knights donning holy grails on their heads while executing the famous shtetl steps from the opening of Fiddler. If nothing else, such gleefully bizarre "overdetermined" sights are rare enough on Broadway to justify a visit.) But toward the end you do sense the team running out of ideas of how to keep the show fresh, especially when they resort to audience participation at the end.

The pleasures of Spamalot are thoroughly forgettable a few days later, while some people (no names) can quote the lines from the movie ceaselessly for years on end. What does that say?

Earlier, I speculated that there will be no future life for a clever parody song like "The Song That Goes Like This." I should revise that prediction now that I've seen (and heard) just how hilarious the song is ("Now we change the key/ We're moving up to 'G'/ We should have stayed in 'D'")--but still this is aided by the perfectly neat context Nichols's production has put it in. A New Yorker sneak-peak article a while back quoted Nichols at a production meeting saying something like "Well of course we have to end with confetti."And so they do. And--y'know?--it works. After so much drek, it is fun to feel yourself in the hands of a master entertainer.


Anonymous said...

I applaud you, good sir Playgoer. A review with which I not only thoroughly agree but... um... thoroughly agree with as well.

Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Blog

Anonymous said...

Our family has the opportinity to see Spamalot. My 9-year-old daughter enjoys the movie, but I am uncertain if Spamalot has additional content that would be inappropriate. The original has a few words, and some suggestive content, but nothing blatant. Can anyone offer feedback on this?

Not dead Yet