“SPAMALOT:” HIGH POINTS AND WHAT’S-THE-POINTS FROM PYTHON LEGACYBy Greggory Moore
With its mix of irreverence, stream-of-consciousness absurdism and determination to play out a joke to its ludicrous death, the Monty Python legacy is as influential today as its work was groundbreaking in the 1970s.
While the populist Monty Python’s Spamalot effectively revisits certain high points from those glory days, it not only adds nothing to the Monty Python legacy but includes plenty of material that doesn’t seem to come from the same comedic universe. This doesn’t prevent Musical Theatre West from milking all they can from this hit-and-miss hodgepodge, however.
Spamalot, written by Eric Idle and partly based on the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, concerns the travels of King Arthur (Davis Gaines) and his loyal servant, Patsy (James Torcellini), as they traverse the English countryside recruiting knights and questing for the Holy Grail. Idle throws so much self-reflexivity into the mix—none of it clever, all of it old hat—that we get numbers like “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” “The Song that Goes Like This” (overdone well before we get to its two reprises) and “The Diva’s Lament,” in which Tami Tappan Damiano (vocally dynamic, even when her material is weak) wonders what happened to her Lady of the Lake part in Act II.
It’s easy to see why Holy Grail co-directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones have no use for Spamalot—Jones called it “utterly pointless [and] full of air”. The music is often just plain bad, and the original comedy tends to the lowest common denominator the Pythons have spawned (e.g., Family Guy), material that shamelessly begs you to laugh even though no thought beyond tossing some silly incongruity in the audience’s general direction has been put into earning that laughter. “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” is a prime example, with its explicit point being that you need Jews in your musical for it to go over the top. Is it racist? One can’t imagine Idle writing something similar regarding the need for Blacks. Is it pretending that the producers are racist? It’s probably too milquetoast to be truly offensive. Rather, it’s just a random, lazily unfunny concept set to awful music that engenders an uninteresting set piece.
On the other hand, there is a passage when the music transitions into the wedding dance from Fiddler on the Roof, an excellent song and a riveting piece of dance. The Musical Theatre West orchestra revs up, the line of dancers links up and begins to slide back and forth in unison with those bitchen leg loops—and they look great doing it. The energy in the theater has suddenly blasted off the charts, transporting you from schlock to high art within seconds. But alas, the moment is brief.
There isn’t a person in this production of Spamalot not doing top-notch work. The performers are funny when the material allows them to be, capable in body and voice even when the material isn’t worth the effort. Add costuming and a mise en scène so good that even a horrific number like “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” has a great visual payoff. Even when Spamalot is dumb, it sure looks good.
But a modicum of the material is rather good, particularly at the beginning of Act II, where we encounter the Knights of Ni (hilarious even if you already know the routine), a great song by Sir Robin’s Minstrels (composed not by Idle but by Neil Innes for Holy Grail), and the show-stopping “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
I was anticipating the latter song, mistakenly believing it comes from Holy Grail and not Life of Brian. When it arrived, however, I was surprised by its effectiveness. The theatre felt unified as we whistled along to this jolly tune (probably the most well-known Monty Python meme) about enjoying yourself in the face of mortality (’cause what the hell else are ya gonna do?). It was a touching moment made all the more enjoyable by the fantastic performances of Gaines, Torcellini (whose every sound, move, and facial expression is inspired), and the orchestra. The only downside is that, again, great stuff like this is in a different league from most of the night’s music and lyrics.
Other comedic highlights include several bits concerning coconut shells; and the goings-on at the French castle, which begin with a sequence of taunts, move into an amusing consideration of a wooden rabbit, and culminate with a collection of French stereotypes and a cow.
But Spamalot is flat more often than not, and the flatness often drags on ad nauseam. Musical Theatre West brings as much energy to these vast plains as possible, but self-consciously hammy material is still hammy. As he put Spamalot together, Idle would have been well advised to consult the concept of “imitative fallacy,” because it’s a terrible aesthetic mistake to make fun of overly long songs by writing overly long songs, since the audience has to suffer through them just the same.
Of course, considering Spamalot won the 2005 Tony for Best Musical and the 2006 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album, apparently I am not the last word on aesthetic success. But even while admitting as much, I can’t help wondering whether the lofty recognition is all about nostalgia and the comfort of revisiting an old friend in new digs. Or perhaps it’s about belatedly handing out honors for past work, like Martin Scorsese winning the Oscar for Best Director for the shabby The Departed two decades after being snubbed for the brilliant Goodfellas.
Whatever the case, the combination of Spamalot’s populist leanings and cultural touchstones were enough to leave the Carpenter Center audience feeling they had gotten their money’s worth. And at the end of the night, perhaps that’s the only measure of success that matters.
MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT MUSICAL THEATRE WEST @ THE CARPENTER PERFORMING ARTS CENTER • 6200 E ATHERTON • LONG BEACH 90815 • 562.856-1999 ext4 MUSICAL.ORG • THURS-FRI 8PM, SAT 2PM & 8PM, SUN 2PM (PLUS 7PM JULY 8) • $20–$85 • THROUGH JULY 16