John O’Hurley, who plays King Arthur in this national tour of “Spamalot,” is on record as saying that the audience begins laughing “from the moment the conductor drops his baton.”
He is so wrong. I started laughing long before that, while reading the fake program for an imaginary Finnish musical featuring, among other things, the 45-member East Finland Moose Ballet – “the greatest display of horn ever seen on the American stage.”
I never stopped laughing for the next two-plus hours. “Spamalot” is relentlessly, inventively and gut-bustingly hilarious. It is flat out the funniest comic musical I’ve ever seen. Maybe I’m still suffering from post-hysterical syndrome, but I can’t think of one single musical that has ever been so consistently funny.
A lot of comic musicals throw gag after gag at the audience, on the theory – mostly correct – that if even half of them work, that’s a lot of laughs. Yet Eric Idle, the show’s creator along with composer John Du Prez and the rest of the Monty Python gang, has concocted a show where nearly every line, every gag, every pun, every musical number, works.
Here are just a few of the highlights:
•The opening number, titled the “Fisch Schlapping Song,” in which Finnish people slap each other with herrings.
•A jaunty production number about the plague – titled “I Am Not Dead Yet.”
•A number featuring the Lady of the Lake and various water nymphs, who suddenly transform into cheerleaders. Why? They’re the “Laker Girls.”
•A moving Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque ballad which is about the fact that every show needs a moving Webber-esque ballad. It’s titled, “The Song That Goes Like This.”
•A thunderous voice-of-God scene, in which God sounds exactly like a peeved John Cleese.
•An entire song making fun of everything French, including street mimes.
•A Camelot number which turns into a Vegas lounge revue.
•A Sir Lancelot who is straight out of the Village People.
And the above list doesn’t even touch on the show’s core material: The original “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” movie. The show effectively reproduces many of those scenes, including the French taunting scene, the Knights Who Say Ni confrontation, the belligerent Black Knight’s cutting-down-to-size and, finally, the chilling Killer Rabbit scene.
As a longtime devotee of that movie, I can say that this cast nails those scenes with note-perfect accuracy. It doesn’t hurt that many of the cast members are dead ringers for the old Python boys: Christopher Sutton is like a young Idle as Prince Herbert and Jeff Dumas does a perfect Michael Palin as the coconut-clomping Patsy.
The cast’s two standouts, however, carve out their own “Spamalot”-specific characters. The first is O’Hurley (best known as J. Peterman on “Seinfeld”), who is perfectly pompous and just a little dim as the single-minded King Arthur. It’s no surprise that O’Hurley has great comic timing and stage presence, but he also has a great, rich voice, used to excellent effect in his priceless ballad of solo determination, “I’m All Alone.”
Arthur: I’m all alone.
Patsy (standing right next to him) Oh no, you’re not.
Arthur: So all alone.
Patsy: I’m here, you (expletive).
The other standout is the utterly marvelous Merle Dandridge as the Lady of the Lake. This being “Spamalot,” she not only gets to be ethereal and mysterious, but also cheesy and Liza-like, in the Vegas-Camelot scene. She also nails one of Idle’s most inspired musical ideas: She gets to sing a song, titled “The Diva’s Lament,” about the fact that she has been given nothing to do in Act Two (“There’s nothing I can sing from the heart / Whatever happened to my part?”).
The music by Idle and Du Prez is surprisingly tuneful, sprightly and expertly performed by the pit orchestra led by Ben Whiteley.
The sets and the visuals are terrific, with plenty of Terry Gilliam-like animations projected onto the backdrops. The show actually makes fun of its own (very good) production values: One scene is set in The Very Expensive Forest.
When Idle came to Spokane in 2003 for his Greedy Bastard Tour, he mentioned in an interview that he was working on a Broadway stage version of “Holy Grail.” I remember thinking that it sounded like a far-fetched idea which couldn’t possibly work.
May John Cleese have mercy on my soul. Eric Idle pulled it off.
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