Monday, February 4, 2008
I've been a fan of Monty Python since I first saw the television series in high school, and I have a soft spot for King Arthur: Disney's 1963 animated feature The Sword in the Stone was the first movie I ever remember seeing in the theater. Plus, I remember enjoying the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail when it came out in 1975. So I was really looking forward to seeing the stage version.
But I learned an important lesson Sunday afternoon as I watched the touring production of the 2005 Tony winner for best musical, Monty Python's Spamalot: despite my affection for the Arthurian legend and wacky British humor, a little bit of Python goes a very, very long way.
While everyone else around me in a packed Providence Performing Arts Center was laughing hysterically, I just found it mildly amusing. The book, by former Python Eric Idle, seemed so flimsy, the characters not terribly engaging, the plot kind of disjointed. I wanted more about King Arthur and his knights and the quest for the Holy Grail, and less bawdy humor involving private parts, fewer stereotypes and pointless plot detours. (Ok, at this point you're probably thinking, well, I guess you didn't want Monty Python! Maybe I just don't find it as funny as I once did).
Spamalot starts off well, with Michael Siberry's King Arthur recruiting his knights of the Round Table: the dashingly handsome Sir Galahad, the homicidally brave Sir Lancelot, and Sir Robin, who isn't quite as brave as Sir Lancelot. It was pretty funny when Arthur tries a persuade a skeptical Dennis Galahad, played by Ben Davis, to join him. Dennis is clearly not convinced about the divine rights of kings and doesn't quite buy Arthur's story about his power deriving from the sword Excalibur given to him by The Lady of the Lake.
For me, some jokes went on too long, like when Arthur and his knights try to enter a French castle guarded by some incredibly lewd sentries. The mime and Foreign Legionnaires were funny. And I liked the giant Trojan Rabbit. But the taunting and bawdy humor were just too much. I wasn't offended, I just found it tiresome after awhile. That's part of Spamalot's problem: it doesn't know when to stop.
Some scenes really don't move the plot along. Why would the Knights who say Ni demand that Arthur put on a Broadway musical before they'll give him safe passage through the "dark and very expensive forest?" It's just a device for Sir Robin to sing "You Won't Succeed on Broadway if You Don't Have Any Jews." (Apparently, Idle and John Du Prez, who wrote the music and lyrics, think that songs about Jews and gay people are the height of hilarity.)
It was pretty cute the way the choreography parodied Fiddler on the Roof. And being Jewish, I think I laughed harder than most people in the audience at lines like "Your knights might be nice boys but sadly we're all goys." While James Beaman was fine as Sir Robin, I'm spoiled. I loved David Hyde Pierce in Curtains, and I sat there thinking how great it would have been to see him when he played Sir Robin in the Broadway production of Spamalot.
On the other hand, I didn't really find any humor when Sir Lancelot, played by Patrick Heusinger, goes to rescue what he thinks is a damsel in distress, only to find out it's a very effeminate prince, then is outed in a song and dance number called "His Name is Lancelot." It just struck me as a cheap joke that played on offensive stereotypes about gay people.
I didn't think the cast really reached the level of zaniness that would have made Spamalot more memorable. As King Arthur, I wish Siberry had been a stronger presence, more wacky and over the top. Of all the knights, I thought that Davis, as Sir Galahad, did the best job of making the role his own. I liked the way he flipped his long blond locks or flashed a smile in the best matinee idol fashion.
There were things that I liked in Spamalot. Tim Hatley's cartoonish set design, including the giant foot of God that comes down to send Arthur and his band of knights on their quest, really evokes the spirit of Monty Python. And it was pretty inspired to see Camelot depicted as a Middle Ages version of Las Vegas. I enjoyed the banter between King Arthur and his trusted servant, Patsy, played by Jeff Dumas. One of the funniest lines in Spamalot comes when Arthur realizes that they do have some Jews, or at least one, because Patsy is a member of the tribe.
Some of the songs, especially "Find Your Grail" and "Always Look on the Brighter Side of Life," were great. And how could I not love Esther Stillwell as The Lady in the Lake singing the Andrew Lloyd Webber parody "The Song that Goes Like This." (Yes, it's the first time I've seen someone who shares my first name on stage).
It's been years since I've seen the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But as I was leaving the theater, I heard some people say that Spamalot follows the movie pretty closely. So I guess if you loved the movie, you'd probably love the musical.
As for me, I left the theater wondering how Spamalot could have won the Tony over an infinitely more memorable The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I will remember those elementary school spellers long after I've forgotten these knights of the Round Table.