Spamalot is All Wink Wink Nudge Nudge
Bring me a shrubbery. Run away. I'm not dead yet. I fart in your general direction. There. Now you don’t have to spend 99 bucks to chuckle yet again at these cherished catch phrases from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
'Cause “Spamalot” is little more than staged scrapbook of the iconic imagery and absurd utterances of the 1975 Python oeuvre. With its high wattage insistence on its own zaniness and irreverence, the musical is a misguided knock off, rendering what was sublimely silly into just plain dumb.
One (among many) of the key components that made the Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones-directed film so terrific was the realism within the madness; the knights never swerved from their noble quest, even in the face of preposterous circumstances, not even in the face of their own witlessness. No one ever broke character. John Cleese clapped coconuts together in lieu of riding an actual horse – but that never compromised his dignity or determination. Showgirls never shook booty.
In short, there was no wink wink nudge nudge at all in Holy Grail. Spamalot is all wink wink nudge nudge. With its book and music written by Eric Idle, it’s sad to see an original pythoner rape and pillage his own material.
Emboldened, perhaps, by Mel Brooks' successful adaptation of The Producers, Idle (and Mike Nichols!) add gads of glitter and tart up the material for the theater-going tourists. But while Brooks’ original sensibility remains intact in his splashier musical version, Spamalot is drained of its vitality and rendered anemic.
John O’Hurley, best known as J. Peterman, Elaine’s self-important boss on Seinfeld, plays King Arthur. His booming baritone and his air of noblesse oblige, make him perfect for the part – still he has to leap out of character to become a dancing fool.
Mostly, the show is a parade of costumes, (designed by Tim Hatley) -- medieval knight, peasant, showgirl, nun… and nearly every joke relies on anachronism: Camelot? It’s a Vegas gambling palace! Lancelot? He’s a screaming queer, who strips down to his skivvies and dances to Y-M-C-A in a Copa Cabana-type number. Nuns? They are sooo funny when they soft-shoe and break dance!
The best musical numbers are the ones from original Python material. The big number, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” is actually not from Grail, but from Life of Brian, and much funnier when sung by Jesus on the cross (who was played by Idle.)
The movie was not a musical and the Spamalot creators (Idle and composer John Du Prez) strain to incorporate song. One early number, “I am Not Dead Yet” from the memorable Plague-ravaged village scene, sets the tone for what will be an evening of lackluster grave-robbing.
As the Lady of the Lake, Merle Dandridge has a strong voice and sings the relatively funny meta-musical “Diva's Lament (Whatever Happened To My Part?) The song (along with “The Song That Goes Like This”-) acknowledges the play’s disorientation. Iconic scenes are recreated but filler is needed to round-out the two hours.
Along with these self-referential nods, the stalled movical takes desperate measures to find an ending. Stumbling forward, the Knights who say Ni command Arthur to put on a musical! (Using, one supposes, the equation that "out of left field" = Pythoneque). To this end, the knights now need to go forth and seek out Jews. This devolves into Fiddler onthe Roof dances, menorah waving and (sigh) the like.
With audience participation and localized topical humor thrown in the soup, Spamalot achieves that stale air and mass “appeal” of “Beach Blanket Bingo.”