I almost passed on seeing Monty Python’s Spamalot again in its Los Angeles debut at CTG’s Ahmanson Theatre, even though I had a great time as part of the audience for its first western performance at the incredibly classy Wynn Resort and Casino in Las Vegas in 2007. I had simply enjoyed it so much there I thought it could probably not provide anywhere near the fun here at the cavernous Ahmanson, nor could I envision the production able to offer the spectacle it had been afforded while playing on the traditionally over-the-top Vegas Strip, a place where no overindulgence goes unrewarded.
But I should never underestimate Los Angeles, should I?
After the surprisingly swift demise of its first celebrated New York transplant Avenue Q, the Wynn’s Broadway Theatre had quickly been renamed the Grail Theatre to launch the only production allowed west of the ol’ Great White Way of Spamalot, winner of 2005’s Tony Award for Best Musical and honored with a Grammy the following year. Of course, the traditionally Vegas-style production sold souvenir Knights Who Say Ni helmets and snapping white rabbit puppets in kiosks in the lobby, as well as dispensing oversized tankards of ale to take to your undersized seats served in bejeweled plastic “grails,” and offered patrons the chance to get their photo taken standing in a giant tin of Spam or sticking their heads through a hole to become one of the infamous quartet of rude French Taunters.
Monty Python creator/writer/beloved performer Eric Idle’s hugely popular slapstick musical comedy proved to be a stroke of marketing genius for the hotel—and a boon for extracting some of that late-lamented profusion of tourist dollars which flowed so easily before our world’s current economic crisis took its inevitable toll. People who presumably would never think of sitting through an evening with Wayne Newton no matter how much they were offered to drink were able to see Spamalot after a quick but pricey shopping spree at Cartier or Manolo Blahnik. What could be trendier for a vacationing couple from Brussels with admirable discretionary income and a universal appreciation for anything evoking the spirits of those sillybilly Monty Python boys at their best?
Talk about always “looking on the bright side of life.” The current LA debut of Spamalot at the Ahmanson is a major improvement to the production I saw two years ago, even without a couple of $30 Bombay Sapphire dirty gin martinis at Tryst before the show. Presented here in its original two-act version seen on Broadway rather than the traditional Las Vegas condensed 90-minute intermissionless format at the Wynn, it wasn’t until the 8:00pm opening night performance ended at 10:30 that I fully realized how much juicy stuff I’d missed the first time out.
None of the glitz and neon and Gregory Meeh’s cartoon-y special effects have been sacrificed for this national tour—if anything, they are more impressive than in the Vegas version. And not only are there still plenty of gorgeous Sin City-style bosomy showgirls hanging on the arm of Spamalot’s klutzy King Arthur (John O’Hurley) and his noble court of comedic buffoons, there are enough familiar Pythonian references for the multitudes of rabid Flying Circus fans to make this wonderfully goofy musical a hit here in spite of Governor Schwarzenegger’s rapid elimination of anything arts-related in our state.
The few uninitiated folks under 35 who never watch cable, or missed growing up raised by parents intent on performing old Python routines in their living rooms, might be a tad bewildered when the giggles from the audience come before the gag ends. The mere appearance of a guy sporting ram horns provokes instant hilarity and the first declaration of the word “Ni” is enough to send many in attendance into wild peels of laughter. Punchlines in Spamalot are almost unnecessary considering the audience—as in Las Vegas—mouthed the many ba-bump-BUMPS almost before they were uttered onstage.
Under the direction of none other than Mike Nichols, who also won a Tony for this production, and with inventively harebrained choreography by Drowsy Chaperone and Minsky’s Casey Nickolaw, a delightfully ridiculous book and lyrics by Idle, and music by John Du Prez and Idle, Spamalot is simply a uniquely infectious hoot. Of course, it’s based on the cult favorite feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a broadly irreverent retelling of the legend of Arthur and his illustrious Knights of the Round Table, chronicling the outrageously armored and wigged boys’ Keystone Cop-esque search for… well, you know what.
The musical pays quintessential homage to the movie, complete with outrageously absurd costuming, intentionally cardboard-y sets, and homemade-looking props all fashioned by Tim Hatley, created to seem as though they were lifted directly from decorations at a high school homecoming dance in Podunk, Iowa. All the requisite Pythonian paraphernalia is here, from the aforementioned fluffy red-eyed Jekyll and Hyde-bred rabbit and that well-loved contingent of flatulent taunting Frenchmen, to characters calling for the locals to bring out their dead. Why, James Beaman as Sir Robin even gets to carry a rubber joke store chicken; how cool is that.
Although Hurley, who originated Arthur at the Wynn, is still sufficiently deadpanned in the role first created in New York by Tim Curry, it feels as though he’s lost a bit of his earlier fervor for the job that was apparent back then, but whatever he does still works—if not really standing out amongst his wonderfully committed and enthusiastic supporting cast. Perhaps the two most memorable performances are turned in by Christopher Sutton as the achingly funny über-gay Prince Herbert (and other roles, including your classic Not Dead Fred) and Rick Holmes as Herbert’s love interest Sir Lancelot (the unlikely lovebirds stopping the show with their sequined-jockstrap disco club mix “His Name is Lancelot”), and especially in his turn as the show’s most hilarious character, the bad-mannered and fart-happy French Taunter.
As Sir Robin (originated on Broadway by David Hyde Pierce and later performed by Clay Aikens, who should have been playing Prince Herbert), Beaman is particularly notable in the elaborate Al Jolson-inspired “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway If You Don’t Have a Jew,” which concludes with a dead-on line of willing Knights doing the bottle dance from Fiddler on the Roof. Merle Dandridge has all the lungpower and a chest to match as the Lady of the Lake, taking the stage in mid-Act Two to offer “The Diva’s Lament,” wondering what has happened to the throughline of her role since her spectacular introduction in the first act’s “Come with Me” and in the duet “The Song That Goes Like This” with Ben’s Davis’ transformed Sir Galahad (also known as Dennis). Jeff Dumas also wins the audience as Arthur’s poor overloaded, overlooked, and adoring manservant Patsy.
Spamalot’s opening night at the Ahmanson concluded with composer Du Prez and Eric Idle himself taking the stage during curtaincalls and, despite an overlong list of thank yous, Idle’s comments about the origins of their show included his excitement for seeing it mounted here in their “hometown,” especially considering that the inclusion of the story’s Very Dark and Expensive Forest location came after the two inspired collaborators saw Into the Woods some years ago right here in this very theatre. Idle told the already standing firstnighters he’d always seen Spamalot as a “Los Angeles show” and, despite the fact that he said something very similar opening night in Las Vegas two years ago, I am too awed by his incredible comedic talents not to want to believe him anyway.
Monty Python’s Spamalot plays through Sept. 6 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or book online at www.centertheatregroup.org.