SPAMALOT takes the local stage

The legends of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table tell a story of the noblest of England’s leaders. Monty Python’s SPAMALOT sets the same tale to music… kind of. Perhaps the tagline says it best: “A new musical ‘lovingly’ ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Now on its North American tour, the musical has come to Pittsburgh through Sunday, October 1, at the Benedum Center.

A humorous mockery of Arthurian legend, SPAMALOT finds King Arthur and his knights on a quest from God to find the Holy Grail. The classics from the movie, such as the French taunter (catapulter of cows), the killer rabbit, the Black Knight, the fair Prince Herbert, the Book of Armaments (a lampoon of the Bible), the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, and the Knights Who Say Ni, make an appearance. The Knights Who Say Ni scene is a riot with comedic tension palpable during simple silent stares between the actors.

For those old enough to remember the original Monty Python (most of The Tartan’s audience probably wasn’t even conceived when Monty Python and the Holy Grail was first released in 1975), the nostalgia you carry for the sketch comedy show is exactly what will make you want to see this musical.

But is that enough? With a 2005 Tony Award, a bevy of praise, and rave reviews, SPAMALOT certainly has shown itself to be a popular and commercial success on Broadway and now across the country. The people behind SPAMALOT have replicated a great formula: Take a cultural phenomena of the past 30 years, update it with some current jokes and turn it into (a) a movie, (b) a musical, (c) a video game, (d) a play, or (e) all of the above. Take the Marvel superhero movies like X-Men, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, or Daredevil comics. Take the surprising popularity of the video game LEGO Star Wars 2. Some are worthwhile productions with something to say about contemporary American society (such as the X-Men series advocating gay rights), but many just end up looking like cash-ins on intellectual properties faded from the limelight.

Monty Python’s SPAMALOT, directed by Tony Award winner Mike Nichols, feels like a slick commercial production and not like the postmodern British comedy show of the 1970s. The humor does not push the envelope. Hardcore Monty Python fans who expect a new dose of the classic wit will be disappointed. Written by Eric Idle, an original Python, SPAMALOT is about 70 percent verbatim Holy Grail. It does not invent too many new jokes in the Monty Python style, but instead recycles old material with some topical updates.

SPAMALOT makes a number of references to American culture, some funnier than others. It pokes very subtle fun at the Bush administration, lampoons an adult version of Disney World (a.k.a. Las Vegas with Tina Turner), and reinforces the popular notion of gay nightlife culture. SPAMALOT is weak on the political satire and unfortunately relies on fart jokes and physical comedy for about a third of its laughs. Double entendres make up another half. When Idle did write new material, he played it safe and simple like the commercial production that SPAMALOT is.

Although SPAMALOT follows the Holy Grail storyline close enough for immediate recognition, recreating many of the same scenes that made the British motion picture a cult classic, one should never forget that it is a Broadway musical. Keeping this in mind, SPAMALOT, complete with show-stopping musical numbers and two weddings, is quite enjoyable. The production, singing, acting, and musical performances are top-notch. SPAMALOT is accessible to anyone, Monty Python fan or not, who enjoys lighthearted comedy and the “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” atmosphere of a Broadway show. But beware, for something wicked this way comes: In 20 years, we may see a musical based on The Simpsons or Family Guy.