The Spamalot juggernaut has steamrolled into town, sweeping all criticism before it. The 2005 Tony winner for Best Musical might not be quite the biting social satire that the original film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was, but can years of sold-out houses on Broadway—and now around the country—be wrong? Well, maybe. The laughs are silly and often stupid, but they are also unrelenting, which is exactly what you would expect.
Lovers of the original film will find much that is familiar onstage at the Ordway. This fractured retelling of the King Arthur legend may have pretensions of skewering the romantic notions of chivalry, but it’s really just an excuse for grown men (and women) to behave outrageously—and for the audience to enjoy the experience vicariously. Who doesn’t enjoy a killer rabbit? Or people being slapped across the face with a fish?
It may be tacky to say that Spamalot makes an art out of flatulence that is befitting of the titular canned meat, but even if it is, it’s no tackier than the show itself. At its heart, however, the musical seems to draw on a different tradition than the film. The bad puns, the potty humor, the queer bits, the unconvincing drag and the rows of scantily clad chorines have always been part of the Monty Python oeuvre, but they also hearken back further to the old English pantomime and music hall traditions. That was certainly true of the original TV series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but it’s even more obvious in this incarnation.
What’s particularly enjoyable is how the creators (original Python Eric Idle writing the book and lyrics and collaborating with John Du Prez on the music) strive to modernize those traditions. Camelot comes right out of Las Vegas (the Round Table is a roulette wheel). And there is a wonderful Carmen Miranda number for a very fey Sir Lancelot and the boys. There’s more to this show than meets the eye—or at least I’d like to think so.
What I found quite unexpected was that the big production numbers, like “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (if you haven’t any Jews),” were the most inventive and interesting parts of the event. They are clearly intended to be tasteless and offensive send-ups, but they still manage to be well-executed and loving homages to the genre as well. That’s not an easy balance to maintain, but when it succeeds, it gives the whole experience an added element of sweetness and heart that makes the antic clowning more palatable—and funnier.
The Ordway production is nothing short of lavish. No expense was spared, with elaborate special effects and even pyrotechnics on frequent display. But in the Broadway of Disney and Andrew Lloyd Webber, over-the-top production values are almost de rigueur. (Though Idle and Du Prez do get their revenge: much of the music for the Lady of the Lake is a subtle but deliberate lampooning of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hyper-romantic style.) Visually, it’s Tim Hatley’s costumes that are the true works of art; they are stunning to look at and contain more visual allusions than there are musical ones in the score.
Offering an actual critique of Spamalot is pointless, because it’s more than just a show—it’s a phenomenon. It’s juvenile and silly, often profoundly so, but there is always a place for such well-done low comedy. For the next couple of weeks, that place is Ordway Center for the Performing . . . uh, Arts.