A new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Book and lyrics by Eric Idle
Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Directed by Mike Nichols
Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
With David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry, Christopher Sieber, Michael McGrath, Steve Rosen, Christian Borle, Alan Tudyk and Sara Ramirez
At the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York City
In the interests of full disclosure and for those Pythonians keeping score at home, the stage version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot, includes but is not limited to the following jokes:
1) Rabbit(s), both Trojan and killer
2) “Bring out your dead.”
3) Knights who say “ni.”
4) Black Knight (“What are you going to do, bleed on me?”)
5) Prince Herbert (“Huge…tracts of land.”)
6) Taunting French knights and airborne bovines.
Not included are the Castle Anthrax and its temptation of Sir Galahad; the scientific trial of the witch (“She turned me into a newt!”); the three questions at the bridge of death; and many and varied shots of bleak, windswept moors.
If you couldn’t tell already, I am one of those nerdy Pythonians who obsessively and annoyingly repeats bits of dialogue from their beloved movies and TV shows. But even if you’re not one of “us,” it’s quite likely you will guffaw, chortle and giggle at Monty Python’s Spamalot, currently packing them in at the Shubert Theatre. Just as the original Pythons deconstructed the various media they appeared in, pointing out their conventions the better to blow them up with sophisticatedly unsophisticated anarchic humor, so have a combination of Pythons (mostly Eric Idle) and musical theater professionals (director Mike Nichols, set and costume designer Tim Hatley and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone) created this musical that deconstructs musicals, a kind of meta-musical. And if that sounds too highbrow, remember what I said about flying cows.
Like its 44 th Street neighbor The Producers, Spamalot plays with our expectations of what a musical will be like, and is also not above a Lloyd Webber spoof or three. When leading man-handsome Christopher Sieber and voluptuous Lady of the Lake Sara Ramirez come downstage center in a rowboat swathed in dry ice fog, singing the Webberesque “The Song That Goes Like This,” even those of us who haven’t seen Phantom of the Opera know a chandelier is on its way down from the flies. When David Hyde Pierce’s cowardly Sir Robin informs a distraught King Arthur that “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” because he doesn’t know any Jews, you know a line of dancers will soon re-create Jerome Robbins’ famous Fiddler on the Roof “bottle dance,” substituting grails for wine bottles atop the dancers’ heads.
Much in the same way as the anticipation of the Python jokes is as much fun as the jokes themselves (my group of dedicated Pythonians had to be physically restrained from uttering the punch lines from the audience), Spamalot gives musical theater junkies their fix as well.
And while the film version of Holy Grail made a joke out of the cheapness of its production (clapping coconuts together rather than using actual horses is not only absurdly funny but eliminates a big line item in the budget), Spamalot puts every dollar on stage, with magical set changes and more costume changes than an entire Cher tour (her final final final one, no doubt). Of course, some of the biggest laughs still come from the most basic things: horribly wonderful puns and incredible literal-mindedness (when King Arthur instructs the droning Brother Maynard, who is reading the endless “begats” that precede the Holy Hand Grenade instructions, to skip, David Hyde Pierce starts skipping in place underneath his monk’s robes. It sounds stupid but trust me, it’s funnier than an entire episode of “Joey.”)
But the real question is, can these performers match, or even come close to, the seemingly effortless teamwork of the original, unadulterated Pythons of yore? Yes and no. Tim Curry, who essays King Arthur, was out the night I saw the show, and while his standby John Bolton was more than adequate, I missed Curry’s innate goofiness and hostility warring with his role as nominal straight man. No matter what part he plays, serious or silly, I always imagine he has Dr. Frank ‘n Furter’s fishnet stockings on underneath his costume.
David Hyde Pierce, as he proved over and over again on “Frasier,” is one of the 10 funniest people on the planet, and he brought levels of concentration and split-second timing that more than made up for his limitations as a song-and-dance man.
Christian Borle was the chameleon of the evening, metamorphosing convincingly from a mustached historian to Not Dead Fred to a hilariously fey Prince Herbert. Alan Tudyk was the evening’s vocal quick-change artist, bouncing from the rude Fraaanch accent of the taunting knight to the high-pitched squeal of the Ni-saying knight to the plaid-spewing Scottish brogue of Enchanter Tim—with a quick stop at Key West for a suddenly outed Lancelot in-between.
Sara Ramirez, who pocketed a Tony Award for her Lady of the Lake (a new invention for the musical and an inspired idea to make up for the lack of actual females in the original Python troupe), gleefully embodied a host of long-lashed, leather-lunged divas, combining belting, bravado and cleavage for the evening’s power ballads.
So if Spamalot is not something completely different, it’s different enough: a musical that takes seriously the job of entertaining the audience by not taking itself, and the genre, so seriously. And if it gets Pythonians of all ages out of their parents’ basements and into a Broadway show, so much the better.