By Ron Fassler . . .
When I was eighteen years old, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) played my local cinema. My brother and I went to see it and were among the few in the theater that afternoon. I remember, as if it were yesterday, falling out of my seat with laughter, which had only happened one other time in my life—during the campfire/farting scene in Blazing Saddles (1973). Thus, my sense of humor can be summed up by acknowledging that I am overwhelmingly partial to anything seriously silly and epically scatological. The hit musical Spamalot, which opened on Broadway in 2005, was Eric Idle’s chance to “RUN AWAY!” with more of the insane comedy first introduced on British television by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and later with the aforementioned Monty Python and the Holy Grail, their first feature film. Co-written with his fellow Pythons John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, Spamalot was a solo writing gig, partnered with composer Jon Du Prez. Idle wrote the book and lyrics to a fun-filled score that captured the anarchic chaos of the Python brand. The show ran for four years and won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Director (Mike Nichols) and Best Featured Actress (Sara Ramirez).
Spamalot is a spoof of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail, the Round Table at Camelot, and the legendary Lady of the Lake. Familiar bits from the Holy Grail film have been directly lifted for the stage, such as Arthur’s encounter with the Black Knight and Tim the Enchanter (elevated by such gifted farceurs as Tim Curry and David Hyde Pierce). Now Spamalot is the latest in Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center Broadway Center Stage series. This limited engagement of just eleven performances produces top-tier talent pulling out all the stops to ensure two hours of outright, prolonged laughter. That is, if this kind of humor is your cup of tea. If not, RUN AWAY!!
On what looks to be a shoestring budget (but who cares?), this production, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, works wonders. Having seen his performance of similar chores at City Centers Encores!— with excellent re-dos of Grand Hotel, Mack & Mabel and the more recent Dear World—Rhodes’ clever and creative work here does not disappoint. Some liberties have been taken with Idle’s book, adding jokes for freshness and opportunities to needle D.C. politicos who might be in attendance. References to Ruth Bader Ginsberg (hilarious) and George Santos (even better) were welcome and fit with ease into the show’s often brazen twists and turns.
Any production of Spamalot will live or die on the ability of its actors to surf the waves and not fall off the board or potentially drown. Praise then to Geoff Josselson and Katja Zarolinski, known as JZ casting, for their first-rate work in securing some of the top comics in New York. A gathering of such a distinctive group surely flowed from a mutual admiration society as well as a desire to work with one another; and, no doubt, they’ve had a joyful romp together over their short rehearsal period and brief run. But it’s the audience who are the true beneficiaries.
Michael Urie is someone I treasure every chance I have to see him perform. He is the perfect person to follow in the footsteps of David Hyde Pierce, who first played the multitude of roles he assays in Spamalot, first and foremost, Sir Robin the “the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot.” Urie’s rendition of “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (if You Don’t Have Any Jews),” is as funny as you would expect. What he can do with a nod of his head, or the small gesture of a finger of one hand, is in the tradition of the greatest who’ve graced the Broadway stage, from Bert Lahr to Nathan Lane. Sounds like hyperbole, but if you’ve seen him, you know it’s true.
Alex Brightman, Tony-nominated for starring turns in School of Rock and Beetlejuice, is on Hank Azaria’s track from the original production, portraying (among others) Sir Lancelot, the Homicidally Brave. He performed the formidable task of taking such famous John Cleese Python line readings as both the French Taunter and Tim the Enchanter, and RUNNING AWAY in deliciously different directions. (I’m done doing that, by the way. Comedy comes in threes.)
Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer works wonders with her vocal range and full physicality as the Lady of the Lake. It’s a small but commanding part, and her take-no-prisoners take on it had the audience in the palm of her hand. James Monroe Iglehart made for an elegant Arthur, though his was a harder act to follow than others, as both Graham Chapman and Tim Curry had their natural Englishness going for them, offering crisp line readings that are near impossible to top.
Special mention must be made of Rob McClure, who continues to dazzle in whatever shows he’s wisely cast. His work in Something Rotten, Beetlejuice, Honeymoon in Vegas, and Noises Off, have all delighted me to no end—though, sadly, I missed his short stint in 2012’s Chaplin, for which he received a Tony nomination. Here, in an assortment of parts through which he flows effortlessly, you have to wait a long time for the pièce de résistance, his side-splitting Prince Herbert, near the show’s end—but it’s worth it. His sense of physical comedy is second to none.
Contributions from Matthew Saldivar (Patsy, King Arthur’s trusty servant/steed and constant companion) and Jimmy Smagula (Sir Bedevere, the Strangely Flatulent) were uproarious. Both also excelled in the Kennedy Center’s Guys and Dolls as Benny Southstreet and Harry the Horse, respectively. Nic Walker brought a strange dimension of flair to his roles, most effectively as Sir Dennis Galahad, the Dashingly Handsome.
The Kennedy Center has already announced that next season’s trio of Center Stage will include Tick, Tick, Boom; Bye, Bye Birdie; and Nine. The runs are short, the quality enormous.
Spamalot. Through May 21 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. www.kennedy-center.org
Photos: Jeremy Daniel