Theater review: 'An Evening Without Monty Python' at the Ricardo Montalban
In 1974, a programmer at a PBS station in Texas came across a tape of a British comedy show he’d never heard of and tried it out on the air. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” eventually conquered America, and the world was never the same. (This incident alone should justify eternal government funding for public television.)
The Pythons’ humor captured the extreme tension between British formality and its veiled aggression; their silliness signaled the end of empire as surely as India’s independence. (Or maybe it was all an excuse to dress in women’s clothes.) The ensemble’s unhinged influence on comedy is hard to overestimate: “Saturday Night Live” and “The Office” probably owe them residuals.
Now the group’s classic sketches—performed by a new generation of comedians—are on stage at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre in “An Evening Without Monty Python,” co-directed by Eric Idle. Short, sharp, and consistently funny, “Without” will satisfy both fans tired of watching the iconic clips on YouTube and those who have never seen a dead parrot.
Idle assembled the show without original Pythons in the belief that he could “trust the writing,” and he’s proved right in this fast-moving, deftly executed collection of skits and songs. Yes, John Cleese’s patrician rigor smelled faintly of sadism; Michael Palin had a manic light in his eyes at odds with the angelic smile. We all have our favorite member of the Flying Circus.
But this post-Python crew brings their own verbal and physical dexterity to the party, with mostly hilarious results. How else to explain a Hollywood audience in 2009 convulsing with laughter at 1970s jokes that hinge on the difference between Protestant and Catholic views of procreation? (Theological punch lines courtesy of comedian Jim Piddock, a regular in Christopher Guest movies.)
Bring on the cavalcade of twits, frumps, anally retentive bureaucrats and swishy men in uniform: Jeff B. Davis, known for his quick timing on “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” brings a steely focus to his Spanish Inquisitor. Alan Tudyk plays a candy maker so perverse Willy Wonka would get creeped out, and Rick Holmes vaults into virtuosic logorrhea as a wet blanket booking a holiday. “Frasier” favorite Jane Leeves, who had an uncredited part in a musical section of “Life of Brian,” has the least to do, but do not underestimate her ability to land a friendly line about oral sex.
Crisply staged by Idle and BT McNichol, with musical direction by John Du Prez, the evening moves along at top speed, and the performers’ ability to control the audience’s laughs gives the production a precision that would please Mr. Cleese. (As would the impressive number of quick costume changes.) Only during the most iconic sketches, such as the Ministry of Silly Walks or the Lumberjack Song, is the charisma of the old gang rather missed.
At 80 minutes, the evening feels a little short; weren’t there a few more sketches to resurrect? More musical numbers? The experiment doesn’t quite feel done. Or perhaps, like the Pythons who avoid endless reunion tours, this next generation of comics knows it’s best to leave us wanting more.
“An Evening Without Monty Python,” Ricardo Montalbán Theatre, 1615 Vine St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct 4. $55-$75. (800) 595-4849. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Photo: Rick Holmes, left, and Alan Tudyk in "An Evening Without Monty Python." Credit: Christina House / For The Times