King of Comedy

Review of Spamalot at Connecticut Repertory Theatre

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a huge fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and of Monty Python in general. I saw the film on its first U.S. run, several times, and had, in my teens, committed to memory many Python routines, including most of the dialogue of the film. I resisted going to see the Broadway run of Spamalot because, frankly, the idea of actors trying to take on the variety of roles and voices that the Pythons themselves—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and sometimes Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland—originated struck me as a kind of sacrilege. But time goes on and we’ve got to get over that.

 Richard Kline (far right) as King Arthur with his Knights (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Richard Kline (far right) as King Arthur with his Knights (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Particularly as Spamalot has managed to bring to the stage the inspired inanity of the film, but with the advantage that the actors can actually hear the audience laughing. Where the film spoofed certain genres of film-making, not least the documentary and the arthouse film, Spamalot spoofs the stage and, particularly, Broadway musicals. Both film and musical, of course, spoof the august tale of King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table, the search for the Holy Grail, and the mix of the fabulous and the folksy that comprises the world of legend. Idle, who had to go it alone without his former colleagues in converting their best-known work into a stage show, is clever in how he “lovingly rip[s]-off” (to use the official terminology) the film and adapts it to the stage.

 The Cast of Spamalot (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The Cast of Spamalot (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Tremendously popular, Spamalot has played all over the world—which is fitting as the good old British empire got about a bit. As staged at University of Connecticut’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre, directed by Richard Ruiz, with a few professional parts and the rest student actors, Spamalot comes across as a wacky romp trying to “find its legs.” The notion that Arthur has to put on a Broadway show, as charged by the Knights Who Until Recently Said Ni, feels like a quest indeed. Though production values may have been a bit different on Broadway, the show sends up professional theater while remaining true to what Idle conceived: taking aim at Broadway while aiming for Broadway. That means there are plenty of cheesy visuals that are remarkable for how serviceable they are—such as the castles for the outrageous French taunters and the plaintive plight of Herbert. There’s even catapulted cows and a hilarious plush, fanged rabbit. And a great variety of costuming by Heather Lesieur.

 Arthur (Richard Kline) and BFA actors as attendants (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Arthur (Richard Kline) and BFA actors as attendants (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The pros in the cast—Richard Kline as Arthur and Mariand Torres as the Lady of the Lake—together with choreographer Tom Kosis give this show its Broadway shine. The stagework throughout is lively and inventive (and special credit to Voice and Accent Coach David Alan Stern for keeping an ear to the original). Kline’s Arthur has the right straight-man tone—diffident and generally perplexed—but he can also soft-shoe and sing and break the fourth wall—“there goes my career”—all while seeming like an aging CEO trying to find out what makes his business go. And Torres, besides looking great in her various get-ups, from Disneyish princess to outlandish Vegas-style hoofer, handles the vocals given to the Lady—who is mainly only there to provide musical commentary—with joyous comic aplomb.

 Mariand Torres as The Lady of the Lake (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Mariand Torres as The Lady of the Lake (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

But about that part: since most of the Python’s works were “boys only” affairs, with an occasional actual female cameo, mostly in the T&A category, there’s not much for a female star to do in Spamalot. Idle’s solution is to make that lack thematic, having the Lady gripe—in full-throated song—about being underused. It’s funny, yes, but misses taking advantage of the Zoot/Dingo dichotomy from the film, as the stage play—disappointingly—drops the entire Castle Anthrax scene. It should’ve been expanded rather than excised and then there would be some actual female “peril” and possibly a song or two for a female character that isn’t simply meta-commentary.

The show is well cast, particularly in key roles: Gavin McNicoll is perfect as Pasty, Arthur’s overlooked Cockney assistant, who gets a major song, and Nick Nudler is rather Idle-esque as the cowardly “Brave” Sir Robin, who gets to lead the droll “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”—very Gilbert & Sullivan—while, as Sir Lancelot, Bryce Wood does full justice to the delightful “His Name is Lancelot.” Both songs develop facts about the American stage—the prevalence of Jews and gays—in a breezy, poking-fun way. Like “The Song That Goes Like This” and “Twice in Every Show,” the song routines laugh at the convenience of conventions even while benefiting from them, for the sake of a laugh.

 BFA actor Gavin McNicholl (Patsy) leads the cast in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

BFA actor Gavin McNicholl (Patsy) leads the cast in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

And that’s pretty much the only take away from the show, as stated in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (which Idle, who wrote it, cleverly steals from the Python’s other successful film, The Life of Brian): “They say it’s all a show, keep ‘em laughing as you go / Just remember that the last laugh is on you.” The laugh, initially, was that a show that spoofs successful Broadway musicals became a successful Broadway musical, winning three Tony awards. Here, the “last laugh” is that the show is also a delightful big production event for university theater with its infectious sense that it’s best not to take anything too seriously.

 BFA Actor Bryce Wood as Tim the Enchanter (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

BFA Actor Bryce Wood as Tim the Enchanter (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

 

 

Richard Kline in
Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle; Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Featuring Mariand Torres
Directed by Richard Ruiz

Scenic Designer: Abigail Copeland; Lighting Designer: Adam Lobelson; Musical Director: John Pike; Costume Designer: Heather Lesieur; Voice & Accent Coach: David Alan Stern; Technical Director: Gregory Maine; Dramaturg: Benjamin McSheehy; Video/Projection Designer: Josh Winiarski; Choreographer: Tom Kosis; Sound Designers: Justin Graziani, Joel Abbott

Cast: Mikaila Baca-Dorion; Valerie Badjan; Juliana Bearse; Olivia Benson; Kent Coleman; Jeff DeSisto; Zack Dictakis; Tabatha Gayle; Derrick Holmes; Sarah Jensen; Richard Kline*; Kirsten Keating Liniger; Curist Longfellow; Gavin McNicoll; Chester Martin; Nick Nudler; Joon Ho Oh; Scott Redmond; Susannah Resnikoff; Ryan Rudewicz; Meredith Saran; Ben Senkowski; Ryan Shea; Brian Patrick Sullivan; Mariand Torres*; Bryce Wood; Jacob Harris Wright

*AEA member

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
University of Connecticut School of Fine Arts
April 21-May 1, 2016