What do you call a piece of musical theater written by a comedic genius who chose to cash in on the enormous success of people undoubtedly inspired by him?
No one could blame Eric Idle for doing to the guys behind Family Guy, South Park and The Simpsons what they'd been doing to him and his fellow Monty Pythoners for years: injecting musical numbers into their off-center, satirical comedic fare. Music was a small part of Python's success, but the numbers included in films such as The Life of Brianand Monty Python and the Holy Grail give the troupe a place in the pantheon of cinematic musical comedy along such luminaries as the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks and the Warner Brothers animation stable. But it wasn't until the enormous success of animated TV series, which did more to keep the musical-comedy genre pinging on the pop-culture radar than anything vomiting from the mid-brow factory soup of Broadway, that Idle decided to turn a large chunk of Python's history into a stage musical.
The result was Spamalot, a 2005 Tony Award-winning show that, much like the South Park-invigorated The Book of Mormon, was as much an irreverent skewering of Big Musical Theater as it was an homage. Idle tempered the characteristic irony and darker aspects of Python's satire with constant pokes and nods to Broadway theater and popular music in general, complete with overenunciating divas and references to everything from West Side Story toFiddler On the Roof. And while the freewheeling pastiche never quite created the synergy The Book of Mormon did, satirizing and embracing Broadway musical theater while becoming a solid musical in its own right, it's still a fun ride that both lovers and haters of musical theater can enjoy.
And now, 10 years after it was created, the rights are finally available for small theaters, at least in Southern California, and Fullerton's Maverick Theater is the first local place to produce it. While the results are a bit uneven in terms of technical and logistic elements, this Curtis Jerome-directed show captures the absurdity, campiness and droll wit of Idle and his Python mates.
Anyone familiar with the 1975 film it's based on, the aforementioned Grail, knows about the bumbling quest of King Arthur and his clueless Knights of the Round Table for the vessel that Jesus chugged from during his Last Supper. Idle, the only Python involved in Spamalot's creation (he got musical help from John Du Prez), incorporated a great deal of the film, but he seasoned it with other iconic Python references, from the obvious (Spam) to the not-so-much (The Ministry of Silly Walks).
Jerome, who both directed and choreographed, captures enough of Idle's lunacy to please fans of the original, but he and his cast put their own spin on the proceedings. And while not everything works (the evisceration of the Black Knight is particularly clunky, and it's difficult to hear the ensemble much of the time), the vigor and energy of the cast smooths out the rougher parts.
As King Arthur, Brian Kojac, the founder of STAGEStheatre and veteran of scores of shows big and small, dons a three-tiered hat that those familiar with his work may never have seen: comedic song-and-dance man. Kojac is more than game, and while he's not exactly the most polished singer or dancer, that actually underscores his character. This Arthur is not only a guy with charisma and intensity, but also one woefully ill-equipped to deal with the hapless knights he has chosen to unify Britain. It's Kojac's quixotic fervor to get the job done that holds the ragtag collection of buffoons, as well as the story's admittedly fragile spine, together.
As Patsy, his right-hand man and faux horse, Robert Dean Nunez once again displays his versatility, as do Alastair James Murden, who splits the role of Sir Robin with Kevin J. Garcia; Paul Preston, as the closeted Sir Galahad; and Tyler Below, as the gallantly smug Sir Lancelot. A scene-stealing Tyler McGraw, in a variety of roles, also shines, but the real gem of the supporting cast is Charyia Bissonet, as the Lady of the Lake. Apparently, Bissonet is a professional singer who hasn't been on a musical-theater stage in more than 20 years. Even without that knowledge, her performance is stunning, both vocally and acting-wise.
It's a high point in a production with many. While some purists may consider this regurgitated Python (as Terry Gilliam reportedly called it), Jerome and his cast have produced a show that serves as both a fitting introduction to the frenetic imagination of one of the indispensable members of a brilliant comedic ensemble, as well as a reminder of why you gave a shite in the first place.