Saturday, June 10, 2006

Monty Python's Spamalot: Minstrel Show

According to the playbill, Monty Python’s Spamalot is “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” The film, now more than thirty years old, was an edgy, intelligent sendup of Arthurian lore and legend, with digressions into Marxist dialectics and sexual politics. Spamalot, which won last year’s Tony for Best Musical, is a boorish, brainless spoof of Broadway, with one-liners about Britney Spears, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the Three Six Mafia.

You can probably guess which one feels dated.

With a book by Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle, and music by Idle and longtime Python collaborator John Du Prez, Spamalot is made of the flimsiest, most frivolous material imaginable: Old-fashioned Broadway burlesque. As such it makes recent Broadway gagfests like The Producers and Hairspray seem profound in comparison. Naturally, Spamalot features no plot to speak of, and only minimal character development. King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail, which provided the movie with the semblance of a narrative, doesn’t materialize until nearly the end of the first act, and is mentioned infrequently in the second.

Highlights are mostly cannibalized from the Monty Python filmography. An elaborate Act I production number, “Knights of the Round Table,” comes from Holy Grail, and the showstopping Act II opener, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” is from the deeply sacrilegious Life of Brian. (Perhaps it’s appropriate that a musical named after Hormel's SPAM should be comprised of disparate odds and ends.) Alas, the original songs for Spamalot are banal affairs, seldom rising to the inspired lunacy of even second-rate Python. The notable exception is “I Am Not Dead Yet,” a sprightly hornpipe sung by an not-quite-expired plague victim.

Eric Idle’s book, like his score, amuses when it follows its source and founders whenever it strays. By now the audience for Spamalot is as familiar with old Monty Python routines as the cast members themselves: Throughout the opening-night performance, one could hear audience members mumbling familiar lines of dialogue with the actors -- a tendency which grew more pronounced as the show progressed. Some Python fans will doubtless be puzzled at the absence of the film’s best-known bits, such as the witch-burning scene (cut in out-of-town tryouts). Still, I suspect they will find enough of the original Holy Grail in Spamalot to satisfy their craving for silliness, though non-fans may not find quite enough to understand what the fuss is about.

Director Mike Nichols is better known for movies like The Graduate -- and perhaps more to the point, for his work as the male half of the comedy team Nichols and May. His improvisational sensibility and comic timing are apparent throughout this production, and with his assistance, the national touring company of Spamalot milks Idle’s thin script for every titter, chuckle and guffaw. Unlike the original Broadway production, which featured Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce and Tim Curry, this cast features not a single recognizable "name" -- and, oddly enough, the absence of star power vastly improves matters. As King Arthur, Michael Siberry successfully impersonates both Graham Chapman (who played Arthur in the film) and Tim Curry (who originated the part on Broadway), with a dash of John Cleese’s irritability tossed in for good measure. Siberry's characterizaton is far from consistent, but it is consistently funny. John Dumas walks away with several scenes as Arthur’s hapless assistant Patsy. The most impressive performer, however, is African-American actress Pia Glenn, as The Lady of the Lake. Glenn winks her way through Spamalot’s sappier ballads, and wrings more laughs out of her solo number, “A Diva’s Lament,” than it probably deserves.

Thanks to doubling, tripling and quadrupling of roles, Spamalot seems like a much larger show than it is, and Nichols deploys his scenic effects (including a too-generous helping of computer graphics) to ensure as much stage spectacle as the material will bear. Tim Hatley’s sets wittily evoke Terry Gilliam’s animation for the Python television series, while Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is the quintessence of gaudiness and glitz. On the whole, the production design, like the show itself, seems less suited to Broadway or Washington D.C., than Las Vegas -- where, not coincidentally, Spamalot will begin playing next year, albeit in an abridged 90-minute version. The interactive finale is perfectly suited to the so-called “Entertainment Capital of the World,” and comes complete with a singalong encore of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” and generous blasts of confetti to convince the audience that they had a good time. (The confetti seemed rather desperate to this critic.) Then Spamalot sends its thousand happy theatergoers into the lobby, where they may purchase twenty-dollar souvenir programs and ten-dollar tins of pressed ham. By the end of the evening, some audience members (who pay up to ninety dollars apiece to see Spamalot) may feel as “lovingly ripped off” as the show claims to be.

It's hard to hold this against Spamalot, which generates goodwill as efficiently and mechanically as cash. Although some surprisingly graphic bloodshed in the second act may disturb a few theatergoers, I doubt most will find the experience particularly crass or unpleasant. Still, I don't think it's unfair to expect a bit more of a musical -- even one based on the scattershot comedy of Monty Python -- than two hours of mildewy one-liners, the best of them lifted from a movie one could rent at any video store. And for my part, Spamalot didn't leave me wanting more so much as it left me wanting something.

Monty Python’s Spamalot plays at the National Theatre through July 9. Because of frequent off-color humor and a few scenes of sexuality, it is inappropriate for children and younger teenagers.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Army of Shadows and Overlord: If You Haven't Seen Them, They're Still New

(coming soon)

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