by Tom Finkel
Dennis Brown reviews Spamalot
Everything that its disciples associate with Monty Python is here: the projection designs, the flatulence jokes, the anarchic nonsense. Inspired by the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the frenetic-if-aimless plot concerns the fabled King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. But this is not the legend you know from Camelot. Guinevere and Mordred have been replaced by flying cows, killer rabbits and cheerleading Laker Girls.
Once the show establishes its no-holds premise that anything goes and nothing is sacred, the viewer's task is to take a deep breath and hold on. Two hours later you might find yourself asking what you just saw. The experience is hard to define, but it has something to do with the celebration of a dry-ice attitude that hones like a laser into the audience's collective funny bone, and bores and bores until sooner or later everyone succumbs.
That this runaway train of a musical doesn't become a train wreck is surely due to director Mike Nichols, whose gift for theater alchemy has been, in its own way, as legendary as that of the king this show spoofs. It's worth noting that since its inception as a BBC television show in 1969 the Monty Python franchise has been, if not a cult fancy, as least an acquired taste. Nichols has taken what heretofore has been specialized material and made it accessible. He personifies the Great Audience. There's no knowing precisely what Nichols does in rehearsal, but it's a safe guess that he laughs a lot. He then exercises a selectivity that -- without diluting the material -- shears out any self-indulgent excess that might turn some viewers off. He brings taste to tastelessness. If you want to know what Nichols does, compare in your mind the original Annie, which he produced, to the current touring company that played the Fox last December. Compare the original Nichols-directed Barefoot in the Park to the recent Broadway revival that sputtered through a three-month run. Then try to imagine what Spamalot will look like in a few years after Nichols has moved on to other ventures. That alone should be enough to encourage you to see it now.
Because Nichols is a superstar, his presence on a marquee outweighs all other names. It doesn't much matter who's in a Nichols show -- not because they are lesser talents, but rather because you trust Nichols to cast his shows impeccably. This ensemble tends to creep up on you. As the show is playing out, you might find yourself thinking that no one really stands out. But then during the curtain call you suddenly realize how collectively effective each individual performance was. Michael Siberry's King Arthur is delightfully dazed through most of the evening. He's the underappreciated straight man who provides the necessary counterweight to everyone else's high-flying goofiness. David Turner is charming as the not-so-brave Sir Robin, who turns ill before our eyes while minstrels enumerate all the horrific fates that might befall him in battle. According to the program, Rick Holmes is both the fey Sir Lancelot and the outrageously bullying French Taunter. No way! Nobody's that versatile.
With a knowing book and lyrics by Eric Idle, and jaunty music by Idle and his longtime writing partner John Du Prez -- and with a tip of the grail to Broadway and movie musicals as disparate as Fiddler on the Roof and Singin' in the Rain -- Spamalot makes stupid seem smart. In a world that is succumbing to dumb and dumber, that alone is a shamelessly wicked feat.