Wasn't that great?" a middle-aged man asked his wife as they strode out of the Muny after Monday's season-opening performance of Monty Python's Spamalot. "It was better than great," the wife replied. "It was thrilling." Indeed it was thrilling after the curtain call when John O'Hurley, the Muny's intrepid King Arthur, surprised the audience by introducing Eric Idle, one of the original cast members of the fabled 1970s Monty Python TV series. Idle, who wrote this 2005 musical's scatterbrained book and lyrics, led the standing audience in a jolly sing-along of the show's signature anthem, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."
If Idle's charming appearance provided the evening with a memorable climax, the entire production was fraught with — if not thrills — at least perils of its own. Throughout the weekend, rain had forced the cancellation of outdoor rehearsals. Prior to Monday's performance, Muny executive producer Mike Isaacson encouraged the audience to view opening night as "the dress rehearsal and tech rehearsal." At evening's end, a relieved O'Hurley exclaimed, "Against all odds, it happened." And it happened with polish and brio from the entire company. Were there technical glitches? Indeed there were. Did they matter? Only to the extent that they impelled the audience to make an even greater investment in the already chaotic evening.
Inspired by the 1975 movie farce Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this send-up of the King Arthur legend replaces Guinevere and Mordred with killer rabbits and cheerleading Laker Girls. Nothing is sacred. (Did you know that the Last Supper was served on a dinner cruise?) In a world that long ago surpassed dumb and dumber, Idle's savvy script makes stupid seem smart. Director-choreographer Denis Jones has staged the extravagant production numbers with keen precision. (No way were these dancers impeded by lack of rehearsal.) But Jones has directed his actors with a loose leash, so that they feel comfortable to romp their way through the spoof.
John O'Hurley is romper-in-chief. As King Arthur, O'Hurley breezes through these shenanigans in an easy, likable manner. In previous productions Arthur has come across as a dazed straight man for his knights' tomfoolery. But O'Hurley is having none of that. He is possessed of too much innate humor to play dull. Watch how his legs occasionally have a life of their own; they want to be dancing. The script's episodic nature provides moments in which all principal actors can shine. At the end of Act One, Chris Hoch's cow-tossing French Taunter is demonically wacky. As Patsy, King Arthur's faithful (if neglected) Sancho Panza, David Hibbard deftly shakes a mean pair of coconut shells.
But the production's holy hand grenade (to borrow a phrase) is the aforementioned singing and dancing ensemble. One year ago this very week, in the opening musical number of Thoroughly Modern Millie, the dancers swayed downstage with such stylish dexterity that a bold statement was made: No longer would the Muny accept anything less than ultra-professionalism. That same kind of razor-sharp flashy brilliance brands Spamalot.
The one off-putting change here concerns the Act Two song "You Won't Succeed on Broadway." The original lyric continues, "if you don't have any Jews," then spends five outrageous minutes riffing on that unorthodox theme. At the Muny the lyric has been amended to, "if you don't have any stars." Apparently, like many of the characters in Spamalot, the Muny's traditional timidity is "not dead yet."
Apart from that one misguided change, this heady brew of spoofs, parodies and puns is an anarchic joy. The new Muny season is off to a rousing start. For too many years, rather like King Arthur himself, Munygoers have been searching for a theater variant of the Holy Grail: marvelously cast musicals enjoying impeccably professional stagings in Forest Park. After only one full season with Isaacson and his new production team in place, that search appears to be over. The Grail, which had been lost, is found again.