nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 24, 2005
All over the Shubert Theatre are kiosks where you can buy Spamalot programs, shirts, hats, beer steins, key rings, and assorted other merchandise/memorabilia—even a souvenir can of Spam (with the Hormel people neatly credited in the playbill). And that's really all you need to know about the musical comedy that feels, to me, like Broadway's biggest commercial juggernaut since The Lion King: this is an entertainment enterprise designed to make a lot of money. I think it will succeed.
Spamalot is, as you undoubtedly know by now, the new musical by Eric Idle, "lovingly ripped off," as the playbill has it, from the '70s cult comedy classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Pythons—the late Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Idle—had a lot to do with changing the face of comedy back then, but did they ever see a mainstream mega-hit like this at the end of their rainbow? Spamalot ends with a sing-along finale (a la Mamma Mia) with the entire cast exhorting the audience to get up on their feet and clap and sing, while buckets full of paper glitter drop from the ceiling all over everyone. Seems a far cry from the edgy, vaguely subversive, vaguely postmodern ambience of the film; it's possible that this glitzy finish is supposed to be satire—but as it is identical to the phenomenon it may be satirizing, it's very hard to tell.
Spamalot tells the story of King Arthur and his knights' quest for the Holy Grail. In broadest of outlines, it's the Camelot legend you know: Arthur is given the magic sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake; founds the Round Table, whose members include Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad; goes off in search of the grail; and marries the Lady Guinevere. But this journey is about as far from Mallory or even Lerner and Loewe as you can get: the knights are bumblers and buffoons and every enemy they encounter—from a castle full of taunting Frenchmen in the service of Sir Guy de Lombard, to a bombastic nutcase of a knight who refuses to concede defeat even after most of his limbs have been cut off, to a passel of strange forest dwellers known as the Knights Who Say "Ni"—refuses to stay on point and do battle properly. The comedy here is all bizarre, non-sequitur tangents, from the very first scene, when King Arthur is annoyed by a pair of guards who launch into a learned discussion about the flying habits of swallows, to the climactic one, when the instructions for using the Holy Hand Grenade are wrought in lengthy prose that is, hilariously, a dead-on parody of the Bible.
Well over half of Spamalot's book is lifted pretty much verbatim from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and is enormously funny. The rest is musical theatre parody, along the lines of Urinetown but never so skillful and just as unnecessary. There's a number that makes fun of Phantom of the Opera, another that sends up glitzy Las Vegas revues, and another that feels like it might have been cut from the Peter Allen biography The Boy From Oz. Andrew Lloyd Webber is the direct target of one gag; Jews, inexplicably, are the butt of the joke in the show's main production number. Even though some of this stuff isn't as lame or cliche as it probably sounds, almost none of it feels like it belongs here: the universe of Monty Python and the Holy Grail just isn't the universe of contemporary big-business musical comedy (in fact, it is more or less the opposite). But Idle doesn't care; he grafts the callow glitter whether it suits his show or not, determined to create a mindless, crowd-pleasing diversion around (and in spite of) his brainier source material.
(The next paragraph may not make any sense to you unless you are familiar with the film on which Spamalot is based; consider yourself warned.)
So how does Spamalot work for the diehard Monty Python fan, something I will unashamedly proclaim myself here and now to be? Only fitfully, I'm afraid. The script holds up much better than I expected, even in the hands of actors who, despite their credentials and talent, are never equal to the originals (Cleese turns out to be the most invaluable of the Pythons; Hank Azaria never approaches his comic brilliance as Lancelot or the French Taunter). Oddly, director Mike Nichols and the company often mistime the jokes and a lot of laughs are lost or swallowed up as a result; the sequences that work best are the ones rendered most faithfully—Brother Maynard (David Hyde Pierce) reading about the Holy Hand Grenade; the sequence involving Prince Herbert's father (played perfectly by Christopher Sieber) and the Stupid Guard (Pierce); most of the Knights Who Say "Ni" bit (with Azaria at his best as the chief Knight Who Says "Ni"). Most of the movie's main sketches are recreated here, with the notable exception of the Sir Bedevere/Witch Burning story; Sir Galahad dallies here briefly with the Lady of the Lake rather than with the flock of nymphos who try to seduce him in the movie. Sir Lancelot turns out to be gay and winds up with Prince Herbert. The "Knights of the Round Table" number is blown up into a gigantic kitschy ensemble number in which, among other things, King Arthur tap dances (with Patsy supplying sound effects on cocoanuts; a nice touch), and a half dozen chorus beauties emerge from prams (a not-so-nice touch). The Knights Who Say "Ni" demand, as their second sacrifice, not another shrubbery but a Broadway musical—which all by itself, I think, tells you where Spamalot goes astray.
The production values are smashing all around, with Tim Hatley's sets and costumes perfectly evoking the Python style and Hugh Vanstone's lighting always appropriate. The many new songs, written by Idle and John Du Prez, are mostly negligible; Idle's own "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," from Life of Brian, becomes the de facto hit of the show, opening the second act in rousing if unimaginative style as a high-kicking show-stopper led by Michael McGrath as Arthur's servant Patsy.
The show's stars never live up to the original performers they're attempting to channel. Tim Curry, as Arthur, fares best, imbuing his stodgy character (who is essentially the show's straight man) with real charm and good humor. Hank Azaria's work is spotty; David Hyde Pierce is stiff as Brave Sir Robin but pretty good in some of his smaller cameos, when at least we can sense his pleasure in performing shtick he probably recited ad infinitum, the way we all did when the movie first came out. John Cleese, recorded, scores as the Voice of God in what is undoubtedly the funniest and most understated performance of the evening.
The real star of the show turns out to be Sara Ramirez, who is actually creating a role as the Lady of the Lake, conceived here as a Diva longing for the limelight. Ramirez does stunning comic vocal work impersonating a variety of Diva Archetypes; she deserves an authentic star part in her future.
The bottom line: Spamalot is not as good as I hoped it would be; certainly nowhere near as good as The Producers, to which it is inevitably being compared, largely because Mel Brooks thoroughly re-imagined his work for the musical stage while Idle more or less looted his. This matters very little though, because canny construction and savvy marketing have already made Spamalot into the crowd-pleasing smash hit of the season, and word-of-mouth—the show is entertaining, no doubt about it—will only reinforce the show's popularity. Who'd have thought that when John Cleese first said "Fetchez-la vache!" he would one day be talking about a cash cow?