Theater review: 'Spamalot' at the Ahmanson Theatre*
In the mood for a little medieval merry-making? I didn’t think I was, but Monty Python has a way of coaxing you into its giddy time machine for a journey that, no matter how far-flung, usually ends up in the troupe’s delightfully familiar backyard of anachronistic zaniness.
You certainly don’t have to be a cult follower to enjoy “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” the Tony-winning musical largely based on “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” one of the films that extended the global reach of the group’s distinctive brand of British hilarity. The show, which opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre more than four years after it premiered on Broadway, was written by Python mainstay Eric Idle and composer John Du Prez in a manner that effectively translates the winking spirit of the original to a musical theater canvas.
In other words, you're supposed to see the strings behind the sometimes impressively glitzy, sometimes hilariously tattered scenery, designed with fertile wit by Tim Hatley, who also did the ingenious costumes. Come to think of it, everything in Mike Nichols' well-tuned production is part of the joke, including the idea of turning Monty Python’s trademark silliness into Broadway bells and whistles. Poking fun is indeed the driving engine of the show, and the finger of gleeful unmalicious mockery is pointed as much at the stage as it is the world beyond.
The snazzy choreography by Casey Nicholaw, lovingly lampooning the landmark styles of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, ransacks from the musical theater past the way Idle cavalierly cribs from historical sources for his send-up of the quest for the Holy Grail by King Arthur (John O’Hurley) and his Knights of the Round Table. So don’t be surprised to see the gang from Camelot, accompanied by a flock of game showgirls, incongruously move from the foot-stomping of “Fiddler on the Roof” to the dexterous hand jive of “Pippin.”
Set in England, AD 932, the show presents a world in which peasants are smeared in filth while nobles stomp around in a colorful pageant of obliviousness. The humor isn’t as gruesome as the movie’s can be, though a wagon of corpses occasions some dark mirth early on in “I Am Not Dead Yet,” an ebullient routine in which a dying man being loaded onto the pile of plague casualties objects that he can still dance, sing and do the “Highland Fling.”
Behind Arthur’s veneer of strength, charisma and kingly obtuseness is the Lady of the Lake (Merle Dandridge), an amphibious creature with powers of enchantment and a frustrated diva temperament that can’t bear offstage exile. Along with her Laker Girls, a cheerleading squad of pelvis-pounding pep, she transforms a mother-dominated dweeb into Sir Galahad (Ben Davis), a flaxen-haired charmer to assist Arthur on his treacherous journey. But not before she enjoins Galahad to join her in “The Song That Goes Like This,” a spoof of romantic show tunes that feels no need to fill in the cliched blanks.
The prescient laughter of rabid fans alerts us to the setup of favorite gags. Not to worry, Pythonites, there’s a flatulent, Anglophobic Frenchman with a gross-out vocabulary of adolescent contempt, a wrathful Black Knight with a talent for losing body parts and a decapitating rabbit with a sly cartoon smile concealing bloody fangs.
There’s also enough jejune puns to keep the most literal-minded of folks tittering nonstop in their seats. And what would a Monty Python musical be without a rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” the song from the 1979 film “Life of Brian” that teaches us to “give a whistle” when we’re glumly “chewing on life’s gristle.”
But “Spamalot” is more than recycled movie ham. In fact, some of the zingiest moments are expressly theatrical, such as the number “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” in which it is explained to Arthur that if he’s going to take his act to the Great White Way (a prerequisite now for obtaining that elusive sacred chalice), he’s going to have to find a few Jews who know how to deliver a hit. Yes, it’s politically incorrect. And yes, it’s as deliciously irreverent as the Village People-inspired “His Name Is Lancelot,” in which the rugged knight comes out of the closet and gets in touch with his inner disco freak.
This production isn’t starry like the 2005 Broadway premiere, which featured Hank Azaria, Tim Curry, and David Hyde Pierce, along with a breakout performance by Sara Ramirez as the Lady of the Lake. But in addition to a solid (if somewhat modest) crew of cutups, the show has on board the sturdy comic presence of O’Hurley, who ballasted a shortened version of the musical during its run at the Wynn Las Vegas’ Grail Theater. Balanced and buoyant, O’Hurley never overworks his gestures or lines while always lending them just enough fizz. He’s an ensemble player par excellence who deserves the spotlight as well as better miking. (As usual, the amplification system at the Ahmanson still has a few kinks to work out.)
As the Lady of the Lake, Dandridge adeptly meets the challenge of a role that ironically comments on itself at every turn. This tightrope is perhaps best exemplified in “Find Your Grail,” the number in which she gets to flaunt her vocal pyrotechnics with a shamelessness that would be excessive even during the early rounds of “American Idol.” Dandridge entertains and editorializes with equal zest.
It may have taken “Spamalot” an awfully long time to reach our shores, but Nichols’ staging remains spry. This is my third time encountering the musical, and though some of the original sharpness may be lost in this touring production, my laughter suffered not a jot of diminishment.
"Spamalot," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends Sept. 6. $20 to $99. (213) 972-4400. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Saturday performances are at 2:30 instead of 2 p.m.
Top photo: John O'Hurley with the Laker Girls. Bottom photo: O'Hurley and Merle Dandridge. Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times