Thursday, March 17, 2005

REV: Broadway's Spamalot

THEATER REVIEW 'MONTY PYTHON'S SPAMALOT'

A Quest Beyond the Grail
By BEN BRANTLEY
A New York Times Review, March 18, 2005

The meeting of the Broadway chapter of the Monty Python fan club officially came to order - or to be exact, came to disorder - last night at the Shubert Theater with the opening of "Monty Python's Spamalot," a resplendently silly new musical.

Favorite routines first created by that surreal British comedy team for the 1975 movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" were performed with an attention to detail found among obsessive history buffs who re-enact Civil War battles on weekends. Python songs were sung with the giggly glee of naughty Boy Scouts around a campfire. And festive decorations were provided in the form of medieval cartoon costumes and scenery helpfully described in the show as "very expensive."

It seems safe to say that such a good time is being had by so many people (including the cast) at the Shubert Theater that this fitful, eager celebration of inanity will find a large and lucrative audience among those who value the virtues of shrewd idiocy, artful tackiness and wide-eyed impiety. That includes most school-age children as well as grown-ups who feel they are never more themselves than when they are in touch with the nerdy, nose-thumbing 12-year-olds who reside within.

"Spamalot," which is directed (improbably enough) by that venerable master of slickness Mike Nichols, is the latest entry in the expanding Broadway genre of scrapbook musical theater. Such ventures, which include flesh-and-blood versions of Disney cartoons and jukebox karaoke shows like "Mamma Mia!," reconstruct elements from much-loved cultural phenomena with wide fan bases. Only rarely do these productions match, much less surpass, the appeal of what inspired them. Generally, they simply serve as colorful aides-mémoire for the pop group, television show or movie to which they pay tribute. Within this category, "Spamalot" ranks high, right up there with (try not to wince, Pythonites) the sweetly moronic "Mamma Mia!," which repackages the disco hits of Abba into a comfy singalong frolic.

This means it is possible for theatergoers who are not Python devotees to enjoy themselves at "Spamalot," which has a book and lyrics by Eric Idle (an original Python) and music by John Du Prez and Mr. Idle. It would seem unchivalrous not to share in at least some of the pleasure that is being experienced by a cast that includes Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce and a toothsome devourer of scenery named Sara Ramirez.


Still, the uninitiated may be bewildered when laughs arrive even before a scene gets under way. The mere appearance of a figure in a certain costume (say, a headpiece with ram's horns) or the utterance of a single word (i.e., "ni") is enough to provoke anticipatory guffaws among the cognoscenti. Punch lines come to seem almost irrelevant.

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" was the first film feature from a troupe that revolutionized sketch comedy. First seen on British television in 1969 with the series "Monty Python's Flying Circus," this group of Oxbridge-erudite young Brits (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Mr. Idle) and one American soul mate (Terry Gilliam) combined the anarchy of the Marx Brothers with a rarefied British spirit of absurdity and a straight-faced irreverence regarding all sacred cows. "The Holy Grail" stayed true to the formula of the Python television series, channeling the troupe's vision of a disjointed world of colliding sensibilities and cultural references into a retelling of the myth of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.


Much of the joy of "The Holy Grail" lies in its imaginative use of its low budget, turning limited locations and homemade props into a comment on the bogusness of cinematic authenticity. And the cast peerlessly delivered its fatuous material with unconditional sincerity.

The moviemaker's self-consciousness that infused "The Holy Grail" has been reconceived in theatrical terms for "Spamalot." (Tim Hatley's deliriously artificial sets and costumes bring to mind a collaboration between a cynical Las Vegas resort designer and a stoned class committee for a junior-senior prom.) So the fractured tale of the quest of King Arthur (Mr. Curry) and his ditsy knights for the Holy Grail has been woven into another quest: that of bringing the king and his entourage to the enchanted land called Broadway.

This expressed goal makes "Spamalot" a two-tiered operation. On the one hand there is the dutiful acting out of the movie's most famous set pieces (the killer-rabbit scene, the bring-out-your-dead scene, the taunting Frenchman scene, etc.). On the other hand, and (surprisingly) it's the friskier hand, the show spoofs classic song-and-dance extravaganzas, suggesting what the satiric revue "Forbidden Broadway" might be like if it had an $11 million budget.

The vignettes lifted straight from the movie have an ersatz quality, in the way of secondhand jokes that are funnier in their original context. Broadway performance demands an exaggeration that doesn't always jibe with the unblinking earnestness of the Python style. (The interpolated song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" loses the shock appeal it had when it was first sung, by a chorus of men nailed to crucifixes, in another Python movie, "Life of Brian.")

That said, Mr. Azaria (part of the brilliant team of voices behind "The Simpsons" cartoon series) plies his sterling mimetic skills to evoke exactly such fabled figures from the film as the towering Knight of Ni (he wears stilts), the inept warlock known as Tim the Enchanter and the nasty French Taunter who specializes in English-baiting insults. (Mr. Azaria's main role, by the way, is Lancelot, who finds happiness when he discovers his inner Peter Allen.)


Mr. Curry, of the "Rocky Horror Picture Show," is the best of the cast at translating classic Python style into a musical-comedy idiom. His stalwart, plummy-voiced Arthur wears a smile as inflexible as armor, and it deflects any suggestion that this manly king is in on the show's jokes.

Christopher Sieber - who, like most of the cast, plays an assortment of roles - is delightful as a Sir Galahad who tosses his blond tresses as if he were auditioning for a Clairol commercial. And Mr. Hyde Pierce (famous as the neurotic Niles on the sitcom "Frasier") appears to be having such a fine time that it seems impolite to observe that he is not a natural for this material. Still, in the role of the cowardly Sir Robin, he brings a genial Rex Harrison-style dapperness to a patter number about the importance of including Jews in any Broadway show.

The moments when "Spamalot" rises into the ether are those in which it pays homage - à la "The Producers" - to other kinds of Broadway musicals, with bobble-headed nods to the Vegas revue thrown in. The "Knights of the Round Table" number that introduces the swinging pleasure palace called Camelot is a deliciously cheesy, cheesecake-laden floor show, with Arthur morphing into a Rat Pack-style master of ceremonies. (Casey Nicholaw is the choreographer.)

But the tastiest satiric juice is provided by Ms. Ramirez, who plays Arthur's buxom but ethereal love interest, the Lady of the Lake. Whether warmly overseeing her (yes) Laker girls as they cheer the knights, mangling a soul ballad "American Idol"-style or working the stage like Liza at Caesars Palace, Ms. Ramirez knows how to send up vintage performance styles until they go into orbit. The evening's high point involves Ms. Ramirez and Mr. Sieber floating on stage in a boat, illuminated by a newly descended chandelier.


Music of the night, indeed. But what turns this fanged tribute to "The Phantom of the Opera" into more than a one-joke routine is the song, a cunning deconstruction of the repetitive, voice-taxing Andrew Lloyd Webber method titled "The Song That Goes Like This." "Spamalot" also cheerfully invokes the gleaming anthems of hope from shows like "Man of La Mancha" and the camp, pelvis-pumping chorus of "The Boy From Oz."

Do these disparate elements hang together in any truly compelling way? Not really. That "Spamalot" is the best new musical to open on Broadway this season is inarguable, but that's not saying much. The show is amusing, agreeable, forgettable - a better-than-usual embodiment of the musical for theatergoers who just want to be reminded now and then of a few of their favorite things.

'Monty Python's Spamalot'

Book and lyrics by Eric Idle; music by John Du Prez and Mr. Idle. Inspired by the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Directed by Mike Nichols; choreography by Casey Nicholaw; sets and costumes by Tim Hatley; lighting by Hugh Vanstone; sound by Acme Sound Partners; hair and wigs by David Brian Brown; special effects by Gregory Meeh; projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy; music director/vocal arrangements, Todd Ellison; orchestrations by Larry Hochman; music arrangements by Glen Kelly; music coordinator, Michael Keller; associate producers, Randi Grossman and Tisch/Avnet Financial. Presented by Boyett Ostar Productions, the Shubert Organization, Arielle Tepper, Stephanie McClelland/Lawrence Horowitz, Elan V. McAllister/Allan S. Gordon, Independent Presenters Network, Roy Furman, GRS Associates, Jam Theatricals, TGA Entertainment and Clear Channel Entertainment. At the Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

WITH: David Hyde Pierce (Sir Robin, Guard 1 and Brother Maynard), Tim Curry (King Arthur), Hank Azaria (Sir Lancelot, the French Taunter, Knight of Ni and Tim the Enchanter), Christopher Sieber (Sir Dennis Galahad, the Black Knight and Prince Herbert's Father), Michael McGrath (Mayor, Patsy and Guard 2), Steve Rosen (Dennis's Mother, Sir Bedevere and Concorde), Christian Borle (Historian, Not Dead Fred, French Guard, Minstrel and Prince Herbert) and Sara Ramirez (the Lady of the Lake).

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