- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

NEW YORK - The Ministry of Silly Walks has temporarily relocated to Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, the site of the radiantly goofball musical “Spamalot,” a re-creation of the 1975 movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” directed with schoolboy prankishness by the epitome of urbane merriment, Mike Nichols.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if all theatergoers knew works by heart — mouthing the St. Crispin’s Day speech along with the actor in “Henry V,” for example — as obsessively as the Monty Python fans do in “Spamalot”?

Events such as a mere sound effect and the sight of a giant pink foot caused ripples of anticipatory laughter in Saturday night’s audience, with theatergoers visibly restraining themselves from pulling a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and shouting out dialogue along with the cast.

Audience members do get their moment during the encore, when they join the actors in a reprise of the ditty “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Devotees of the British comedy troupe will no doubt note that this song appeared in the 1979 film “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” and in more profane circumstances — performed by three men nailed to crosses.

“Spamalot” does not quibble with source material, as it not only sponges from the Monty Python oeuvre, but also impudently grabs inspiration from other musicals, most notably “The Producers.” Like the Mel Brooks smash, “Spamalot” was first a cult movie and then a stage production that lovingly spoofed musicals while employing the same conventions. With a book and lyrics by Python alum Eric Idle, “Spamalot” interrupts its willy-nilly trip down Brit-wit memory lane to throw in references to Liza Minnelli, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Jews on Broadway.

The most effective parody is “The Song That Goes Like This,” a barbed tribute to the interminable, sentimental sap fests that are the staple of modern musicals. “Come With Me,” sung by the mighty-lunged Lady of the Lake (Sara Ramirez, who steals the show from its formidable stars, Tim Curry, Hank Azaria and David Hyde Pierce) and her pompom-shaking “Laker Girls,” hilariously sends up the obligatory gospel number that crops up in most stage shows and awards ceremonies — complete with a hand-clapping choir and a diva manically swooping up and down the musical scale.

Those with even a tenuous grasp of musical-theater history will get the references to “Phantom of the Opera,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “West Side Story.” The more astute will chuckle over the opening number, which reminds you of “Comedy Tonight” from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” as well as the use of projections on a gridded screen — a direct rip-off of (pardon, homage to) the musicals “The Who’s Tommy” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

The fact that “Spamalot” recycles a lot does not detract from your enjoyment of the show. On the contrary, the familiarity of the material breeds contentment. You don’t have to wrack your brain for cultural references. They are all spelled out for you and predigested for your enjoyment. This is the TV Land of musicals, where the delights come not from surprise, but from reassuring repetition.

A singalong bonhomie pervades “Spamalot,” which holds a rousing appeal to youngsters and adults who never lose their taste for naughty references or sticking their tongues out at middle-class pomposity.

Groaner puns, flatulent and scatological humor, nimble plays on words, scantily clad showgirls, flying cows and jokes about men in tights prevail in this impudent spoof of Arthurian legends.

After the voice of God (John Cleese, at his most condescending) bellows a brief history lesson about the Holy Grail, King Arthur (Mr. Curry) goes out on a quest for knights who will find this sacred vessel and want to sit around his “very, very, very round table” and put on a Broadway show.

The hair-tossing Dennis Galahad (Christopher Sieber) is reluctant to join the band of men, saying, “I didn’t know we had a king; I thought we were an autonomous collective.” Sir Robin (Mr. Hyde Pierce) is more gung-ho about traveling the countryside with a bunch of minstrels than anything having to do with bloodshed.

A coward prone to incontinence when things get dicey, Sir Robin is more suited for theatricals, evidenced in the side-splitting production number “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” where Mr. Hyde Pierce and a male chorus execute the famous Cossack dance from “Fiddle on the Roof” — while singing about the lack of kosher in King Arthur’s court — with chalices balanced on their heads. “There’s a very small percentile/Who enjoy a dancing Gentile,” Mr. Hyde Pierce belts, and the crowd roars its approval.

On the other hand, Sir Lancelot (Mr. Azaria) has no qualms about violence, slaying an entire wedding party to rescue a fair maiden (Christian Borle), who turns out to be a prince. This spurs Lancelot’s flight from the closet, seen in the rhumba number “His Name Is Lancelot.”

Here, boom-chicka-boom chorus boys undulate with the newly outed Lancelot to such lyrics as “His name is Lancelot/He wears tight pants a lot/And goes to France a lot.” Mr. Azaria, the voice behind a number of characters on “The Simpsons,” shows off his vocal prowess in a variety of roles that are spot-on re-creations of such beloved scenes from the Python film as “The Knights Who Say Ni,” the invective-spewing French taunter and Tim the Enchanter.

Mr. Azaria, Mr. Hyde Pierce and the rest of the cast are near manic in their eagerness to please. Mr. Curry masterfully takes a more laid-back approach, clearly reveling in the material but not pushing it. One of the few bona fide Brits in the cast, Mr. Curry is a cheerfully droll parody of an upper-class twit, clueless and effortlessly charming.

You could never accuse “Spamalot” of subtlety. It is vulgar, loud and slapdash — a grand thumb of the nose to pseudo-sophistication and arty pretense. Long live the Pythons.

***

WHAT: “Spamalot,” book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by Eric Idle and John Du Prez.

WHERE: Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Indefinite run.

TICKETS: $36.25 to $111.25

PHONE: 212/239-6200

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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