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Theater review: 'Spamalot' at the Ahmanson Theatre*

July 9, 2009 |  4:05 pm

Spamalot 1 

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.

SPAM3 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.

Spamalot-gallery 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.

--Charles McNulty

"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

Comments () | Archives (14)

I saw this show in Las Vegas when I was there for a convention. Laughed and laughed. Glad to hear it's just as good. It's the kind of show I can take my wife to and we'll both have a great time.

Um... is this what happens to touring productions?
What happened?
While I did still enjoy this show (after seeing it in London just over a year ago), it seems to me they brought the 'Adult/Vegas' version of the show to Los Angeles; not the Broadway version. I don't understand why they would change so much, particularly after winning so many awards!
Had it not begun on Broadway, I would almost say they 'Americanized' it; I felt hit over the head with the jokes, instead of being allowed to interpret them myself. The French taunting scene, a classic, went on and on and on, with vulgar gestures and toilet humor... that not even Python would stoop to. They didn't need to.
I went on and on to my family about how we all needed to go see this; being brought up on Python, and take the 10 and 14 year old, who also loved the film.
No way.
On top of this, the microphone issues...? At the Ahmanson? I have perfect hearing, and struggled to understand.
What a disappointment.

Was there anyone in it other than O'Hurley and Merle Dandridge?

Just returned from Ashland where I saw 5 plays in a 3 different theaters and understood every word. I understood about three-fourths of what was said in "Spamalot" and strained to hear the rest. There was lots of "What'd he say?" mumbling around me. I was in the front of the mezzanine. I'll pass on "Osage County" and try to get to New York and see it. I understand for monetary reasons for it not being staged at Mark Taper or some other appropriate house, but I've sent to many friends to see shows at the Ahmanson, "Doubt, "Ave. Q", that I had loved in New York only to have them come away shaking their heads. I'd explain "It's the theater!" They were doubtful. Believe me, it's the theater. I'll save my money and try to have a theater week in NY.

I have to say I was disappointed in this production. I saw the performance on the first Saturday night of the engagement in Los Angeles and it felt like the actors were already "phoning" in their performance. The chorus girl dancing was sloppy, and the main characters, while clearly talented, lacked life. There were some exceptions...the actors playing Sir Robin, Sir Galahad, and Sir Robin's minstrel were quite fun, but overall I was underwhelmed. Having been a fan of the soundtrack for a while, I was really looking forward to seeing it live and this performance fell flat. Hopefully the cast will start having enjoying themselves more and future theater goers will have a better experience.

SPAMALOT was fantastic! Easily worth twice the price they charge for the tickets. We (and everyone around us) laughed and laughed. After the play, all the people sitting near us were saying that they were going to tell everybody they know to go see it! The cast, costumes, set, songs...EVERYTHING was great. I was in the back of the mezzanine section and could understand every word. GET TICKETS NOW AND GO SEE IT! I would love to see it again. I'm home now, but I can't stop laughing & singing "Always look on the bright side of life" .

I am not a Monty Python fan so I didn't expect much from the musical. I thought it would just be pretty silly. It was, but it also was hilarious. I believe I laughed all the way through Act I. Act II lost a little steam, but it had some of the best numbers. It's a musical that pokes fun at everything, including itself. It was much more than I expected. I thought the cast was terrific.

Saw Spamalot 7/16 for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed this hilarious show despite the extremely poor sound quality at the Ahmanson. My concern with last nights show was that it looked as though John O'Hurley had a foot or leg injury. I noticed every time he had to go up or down something his hand was being held. A few of us in our party noticed that he was slighliy limping at times. I also wondered if purposely "sat out" on a couple of dance numbers. Did anyone else notice and if so, does anyone know what is wrong? Other than that, great performance by a great cast. A must see! (Just hope your sound quality is better!)

This is the review of the show we are to see on Tuesday.

I saw Spamalot on 7/16. I was excited because I loved Monty Python. I loved John Cleese speaking as God with two big feet seen on the stage and other costumes and stage effects. Was sitting in the orchestra in the back and I had a lot of trouble hearing clearly what they were saying a lot of the time. Maybe they should have done super titles like the opera. Do not understand why the building has such bad accoustics. I also think they over-amp the voices so they get blurry.

Contrary to the original review, I cannot imagine someone not well-versed in the Monty Python genre enjoying — or understanding — this production. It did have a lot of energy but that's about it. From the middle balcony, the articulation was worse than what is indicated in previous reviews. Unless you're a Monty Python fan, don't waste your money.

As a fan of Monty Python who could not get enough of the show and its talented actors, I was really looking forward to this show, especially since Eric Idle wrote it. What a let down. There's still a lot of Monty Python in the show, the jokes are silly, of course, but it just did not work for me. I wonder what other long-time Python fans who liked the TV show and also liked the movie thought of this. I thought the actors just didn't have the sense for the material that was required, but then trying to compare this cast with the original Python gang may be asking too much. The Ahmanson doesn't help with its terrible acoustics. Too, this seemed like the Vegas production with all its Vegas comments and scenes. Was the original like this, or did we get a somewhat different show? The audience seemed to enjoy this show quite a bit, so they are either easily satisfied or were not familiar with Monty Python. I was glad to see it end.

I caught the SPAMALOT production on Sept 13th at the Civic Theater in San Diego.
"You won't succeed on Broadway" has been reviewed as being 'politically incorrect'; however, this is an understatement. As a member of the targeted ethnic group, I found the musical number not only tasteless but also extremely offensive.
I also found it curious that the San Diego audience found the ethnic slurs hilarious enough to nearly weaken the structure of the Civic Theater mezzanine. In effect, I found the audience reaction to the musical number also to be offensive.

Ditto on the Ahmanson sound system. I had seventh row, center seats, and it was the same down front. Volume was fine--at times overpowering (music). It's just the frigging electronically generated sound system. Think of the voice quality you get on these cheap answering machines that record everything on some dumb 'chip'. Same thing.


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