By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Enough with the meta-musicals, where are the meaty musicals? Monty Python's Spamalot, now at the Music Hall at Fair Park, is the latest light-bite Broadway hit to make comic hash of the Broadway smash. The Producers—like Spamalot, a musical comedy based on a feature film—won a slew of Tonys clawing at the clichés of the Great White Way. Urinetown: The Musical did it. So did The Drowsy Chaperone.
Lots of shows on and off-Broadway these days give a nudge-nudge-wink-wink at the audience with gags about how predictable and mostly unbearable mega-musicals have become. The one that nudges hardest is Gerard Alessandrini's oft-updated and always hilarious Forbidden Broadway, a musical revue that has held up under the burden of spoof for 25 years. That show recently added send-ups of numbers from Mary Poppins, LoveMusik and Spring Awakening. It also tweaks Spamalot, so it's a musical satire of a satirical musical based on a movie satire based on...oh, hell, who can keep track?
Spamalot is what it is: a goofy remix of some of Monty Python's best material from two of their films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and The Life of Brian (1979). But the Broadway hit and 2005 Tony winner as Best Musical is its own bad joke about what it takes (besides director Mike Nichols) to make a show a hit. The score by John Du Prez and Python veteran Eric Idle is intentional generic twaddle that doesn't even match the irresistible fun of the unintentional generic twaddle of Mamma Mia! The two best tunes written for Spamalot, "The Song That Goes Like This" and "Whatever Happened to My Part?," are thin, repetitive commentaries on how thin and repetitive modern Broadway scores are. Vintage Python fans have to wait two whole hours to hear Spamalot's most familiar refrain: "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." But that was a better fit in its original place in The Life of Brian, the Pythons' take on the New Testament that ended with Eric Idle whistling the happy tune while nailed to a cross. That was classic Python—rude, irreverent and screamingly funny.
Spamalot is just Broadway junk food, thick with cheese and utterly tasteless. Any sense of the Pythons' anarchic madness is absent, and the jokes fly about as well as that dead parrot in the troupe's best-loved old routine.
To review, Monty Python was a sextet of Oxbridge-educated guys—Idle, Michael Palin, John Cleese (arguably the most famous of all Pythons), Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam—whose half-hour, no-budget BBC series, Monty Python's Flying Circus, arrived in the states in 1969, airing first on Dallas' PBS affiliate, KERA. Fast, brash and brilliantly obscure, the humor of the Pythons blew sketch comedy apart. They were the rightful heirs of The Goon Show from the 1950s and mentors to The Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players of Saturday Night Live. Of their time but also ahead of it, the Pythons ended their TV run after just four seasons.
They mostly went their separate and successful ways. But like the Beatles of comedy, their collective popularity never diminished. Spamalot is not their longed-for full reunion—it couldn't be anyway, given the 1989 death of Graham Chapman—but it might be the closest thing we'll ever get to a new Monty Python show.
Like Holy Grail, Spamalot Pythonizes Camelot. King Arthur (played here by Michael Siberry), Lancelot (Patrick Heusinger) and a few other knights gallop around on their own two feet—coconut shells providing clip-clop sounds—searching for the precious relic. They encounter a killer rabbit, lose a few countrymen to the Black Plague, meet taunting Frenchmen who catapult cows at them and joust with a Black Knight (Anthony Holds) who has no fear of amputation (like so much else in Spamalot, this bit's longer and funnier on the big screen). The boobeous Lady of the Lake (Esther Stilwell) leads Arthur through his quest, which somehow veers from the Holy Grail to preparations for a Broadway opening.
There's silly and there's dumb, and most of Spamalot is the latter. "Camelot" gets rhymed with "pram-a-lot." Arthur says, "Come, kneel," and a knight named Dennis says, "It's Dennis."
On their TV show, Monty Python did smart satire. They took aim at the stuffy BBC, bureaucratic governmental bloat (long live the Ministry of Silly Walks) and the behavior of the British proletariat. Spamalot plays it safe by going after Broadway kick lines, the special effects in Wicked and the tacky décor of Vegas showrooms. The two edgiest bits are mean in the wrong ways. The Sir Robin character (Robert Petkoff) performs a nasty patter tune about how Broadway musicals need Jews to succeed, culminating in the "Bottle Dance" from Fiddler on the Roof. Then Lancelot discovers he's très gay, strips off his armor to reveal a codpiece the size of a canned ham and is subjected to the biggest and most unsettling laugh of the evening when King Arthur calls him a "fairy."
The laughs may come cheap, but for a Broadway road tour, the technical whiz-bangs in this production are sure anything but. The set, which one song reminds us is "very expensive," includes a spooky forest that's fancier limb for limb than the spindly one in the lousy Camelot that came to the Dallas Summer Musicals a few weeks ago. The turrets and drawbridges of the various castles in Spamalot are impressive, too, as is the giant foot of God (voiced on tape by Cleese) that nearly stomps King Arthur flat.