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Monty Python's Spamalot

Fox Theatre Broadway Series

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”Moderation”, Oscar Wilde once wrote, “is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” If he were alive today and happened to be in the opening night audience for Monty Python's Spamalot at the Fox - yeah, it's a stretch, but just humor me - he might have revised the second sentence a bit. Maybe something like “nothing fatigues like excess”.

For Spamalot is nothing if not excessive. With a book by Python alumnus Eric Idle and music and lyrics by Idle and John Du Prez, this musical stage adaptation of the group's most popular film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, has too much of - well - everything. There are too many parodies of musical theatre conventions, too many send-ups of other shows, too many reminders that you're watching a musical about musicals, too many jokes (not all of which are funny) and, at least on opening night, too much pandering to local baseball fans.

There's also, judging from reviews of the Broadway production, too much running time - the result of somewhat sluggish pacing that's not, I expect, a legacy of the original director, Mike Nichols. Spamalot on Broadway comes in at just over two hours; at the Fox it was closer to two and a half, with a second act that wears out its welcome far too soon.

That's not to say that there aren't a lot of very clever bits (and some naughty ones as well) in Spamalot. It's just that there aren't quite enough of them and they don't all work.

In all fairness, I have to admit that, at least for me, the ones that did work were pretty hilarious. “The Song That Goes Like This”, for example, sends up neo-operettas like Phantom of the Opera very effectively, complete with an exploding chandelier. “Come With Me” also delivers the comedy goods, with The Lady of the Lake and The Laker Girls singing Arthur's praises, football cheerleader style. Turning Camelot into an overblown Vegas casino for ”Knights of the Round Table” neatly skewers both Nevada kitsch and New York extravagance, while both “The Diva's Lament” and “You Won't Succeed on Broadway” provide what seems to now be the required quota of musical theatre in-jokes.

Unfortunately, Idle and Du Prez seem to operate on the assumption that if you liked a gag the first time, you'll love it the second, third, fourth or even fifth time. That might be true of the original Python routines themselves performed by the authors, but when it comes to production numbers that depend on outrageousness for effect, “it ain't necessarily so”.

Ironically, some of the least successful scenes are those with dialog transplanted intact from the original film - which only goes to show how delicate the comedy bloom is. Deliver a line a second too late and what was a certified rouser becomes a complete dud.

In fact, slow cue pickups are so common that I'm inclined to suspect choice rather than incompetence. It's almost as though someone decided that taking a scene like the argument over cocoanuts and swallows between Arthur and a pair of gabby guards at its original pace would leave too many audience members scratching their heads. Is that a comment on our perceived lack of sophistication? Or is it simply an attempt to adjust to the fact that, with a seating capacity of over 5000, the Fox is nearly four times the size of the Shubert in New York, where Spamalot is now playing? In any case, the result is to reduce what were guffaws to chuckles or, in some cases, silence.

That's a pity because the cast for this tour is, on the whole, a pretty strong one, even if their British accents sometimes fade in and out. Michael Siberry, who appears the be the only Brit in a major role, is a very funny King Arthur, and one of the few cast members who seems to actually “get” the Python style. Tom Deckman handles multiple roles - including the wispy Prince Herbert and Not Dead Fred - with great skill; he alternates in those parts with Darryl Semira and Christopher Sutton. David Turner, Rick Holmes and Bradley Dean do fine work as Sir Robin, Sir Lancelot and Sir Dennis Galahad, respectively. They also have multiple roles. Holmes has two of the better ones as Tim and Enchanter and The French Taunter, getting maximum comic mileage out of the latter's abusive anti-English rant.

Jeff Dumas is very effective as Arthur's long-suffering dogsbody Patsy and Pia Glenn is a hoot as The Lady of the Lake. The role makes great fun of musical theatre divas, and Glenn is just as excessive (that word again..) as she needs to be.

Director Nichols and choreographer Casey Nicholaw keep the stage filled with silly background bits; when the pacing is right they're very effective. Set and costume designer Tim Hatley and Projection Designer Elaine J. McCarthy give the show a look that so closely matches Terry Gilliam's work on the original film - including some classically silly animation sequences - that one hopes the latter was adequately compensated.

The bottom line on Monty Python's Spamalot, at least for me, is that while it's sometimes hilarious, there's simply too much of it that should be funny but isn't. Humor is, of course, a very personal and idiosyncratic thing, so your mileage may vary, but judging from the sometimes tepid applause from the opening night audience, I'm not the only one who felt a bit let down. In any case, the show runs through November 26th [2006] at the Fox; call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.

Someone - either Sir Donald Wolfit, Edmund Kean, or maybe even Ocsar Wilde, depending on the source - is supposed to have said, on his deathbed, that “dying is easy - comedy is difficult”. Spamalot isn't the first (nor will it be the last) show to demonstrate just how true that is.

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Copyright 2006 Chuck Lavazzi

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