- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

Spam may have the reputation of being mystery meat, but it is wonderfully portable and enjoys a long shelf life. Need proof? Check out the touring production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” (at the National Theatre through July 9), which travels from Broadway without stars but with all its salty, porcine humor intact.

If you fretted the show might lose something without the inspired lunacy of the Broadway lineup of Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce , and Sara Ramirez, rest assured the road company maintains the dizzying degree of silliness and high energy of the original, directed with prankster hilarity by Mike Nichols.

“Spamalot” is lifted from the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” with some classic bits from the “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” TV series and other Python movies thrown in. Monty Python fans are a cultish lot, so be prepared for the phenomenon of “pre-laughter” — where the audience wildly applauds and howls at the very first click of a coconut shell or the sight of monks carrying large Bibles. Singalongs are encouraged, and in case you’ve been pop culturally deprived, the words to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” are helpfully projected on the set’s back wall.

The show giddily eschews substance in favor of flatulence jokes, Brit wit, groaner puns both visual and spoken, and gags that have probably been around since long before King Arthur freed Excalibur from the stone. Monty Python’s brand of smart-alecky, intellectually dithering humor — the long-winded, deadpan digressions we know and love from the series and the movie — is well represented in the musical version, along with inventive graphic projections and animated drawings inspired by those of Terry Gilliam. And Eric Idle, who penned the book and wrote the music with John Du Prez, cannot help but send up the sometimes absurd conventions of the Broadway musical as well.

The wispy story concerns a band of bumbling knights, led by the regal and dense King Arthur (Michael Siberry), who set out to find the Holy Grail at the bidding of God, voiced by John Cleese. No austere religious quest here, just an excuse for the knights to encounter the Killer Bunny (a hilariously toothy hand puppet), the Knights Who Say Ni, the Trojan Rabbit, the Black Knight (who refuses to give in, even after he loses both arms and legs), and a heap of bodies from the Plague, including Not Dead Fred (Tom Deckman), who goes time-stepping into that good night with the rousing number “I Am Not Dead Yet.”

Arthur and his men also keep meeting up with the Lady of the Lake (Pia Glenn), a statuesque spirit with a voice to match, as evidenced in the mock-soaring excesses of “Find Your Grail” and “The Song That Goes Like This.” She and her pom-pom waving “Laker Girls” lead the knights to the Holy Grail, with stops at her watery abode — which looks suspiciously like something from a Disney musical — and a Vegas-y Camelot along the way.

Inventions like Sir Lancelot (Rick Holmes) finally coming out of the closet in a South Beach-hued, flaming production number featuring codpiece-clad male dancers wielding maracas are great fun — although the references to the Village People could be retired.

Mr. Siberry’s genial demeanor and acting chops almost make you forget Tim Curry as King Arthur, and David Turner looks and behaves with the cheeky charm of a young Eric Idle as Sir Robin. Mr. Turner also adeptly handles the show’s most satisfying production number, “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” which extends some casting and producing advice that to reveal would ruin its impudent pleasures.

Jeff Dumas contributes wistfully comedic moments as Arthur’s pack mule servant, Patsy, and his numbers, “I’m All Alone” and “King Arthur’s Song,” are among the show’s best. In a variety of roles, including the simpering Prince Herbert and a hilariously honest minstrel, Tom Deckman proves marvelously versatile.

Finding the Holy Grail may be serious and profane business in “The Da Vinci Code,” but in “Spamalot,” the quest is for laughs and irreverent mayhem evoked by those eternal university wits, Monty Python.

***1/2

WHAT: “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” book by Eric Idle, music and lyrics by Eric Idle and John Du Prez

WHERE: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through July 9.

TICKETS: $46.25 to $91.25

PHONE: 800/447-7400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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