In its first Broadway revival, “Spamalot” is high-stepping, low-brow and often hilarious. The cast, featuring such comic royalty of the Rialto as Christopher Fitzgerald, Michael Urie and Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer, pulls off with aplomb the silliest and funniest bits that the 2005 Tony winning best musical “lovingly ripped off” from the 1975 movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Director and choreographer Josh Rhodes, injects color and comedy into the song-and-dance numbers, all with clever lyrics, some outright tuneful as well, such as “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life.” The designers, especially Paul Tate dePoo III’s scenic and animated projection design, add to the cheeky tone.
Like “The Book of Mormon,” “Spamalot” is an extravaganza that makes fun of its own extravagance, simultaneously spoofing and paying homage to classic Broadway musical theater. It samples and makes comic allusion to a long list of shows, including Phantom of the Opera, Les Miz, Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, West Side Story, Company and of course “Camelot,” to whose earnestness “Spamalot” serves as a fiercely farcical antidote.
“Spamalot” shares something else with the long-running “Book of Mormon,” which opened two years after the original “Spamalot” ended its four-year run. Although there have been some obvious updates — punchlines involving Tik Tok, Britney Spears, and George Santos, for example — the humor in “Spamalot” is largely the same as it was two decades ago, and some of it hasn’t aged well, feeling less edgy, and more uncomfortable.
“Spamalot” has never been for the easily offended or the inflexibly refined.
The plot, such as it is, kicks in when God commands King Arthur (James Monroe Iglehart) to find the Holy Grail. He and the knights of the round table are surprised to learn that it’s just a cup.
“Couldn’t we just buy him another one?” asks Sir Robin (Michael Urie)
“Look, it’s not just about a missing mug. It’s a metaphor. We must all look for the Grail within us,” Arthur says.
“Somebody’s swallowed it?!”
As Arthur and his trusty sidekick Patsy (Christopher Fitzgerald) journey with a growing gathering of knights in search of the Grail via horseback (actually just two coconuts smashed together to sound like horseback), snobby French castle-dwellers taunt them with insults, fart in their faces, and bombard them with cows. A killer rabbit attacks them.
And – in an episode that may most test the decorous – a Black Knight (one of the three roles played by Nik Walker) refuses to let them pass, insisting on fighting with Arthur. Arthur slices off the Black Knight’s arm. The Black Knight continues to attack. Arthur slices off his other arm. The Black Knight kicks him. A monk chanting “Alms for the poor” passes by, and puts the severed arms in a basket, changing his chant to “Arms for the poor.”
This is one of the episodes I remembered from the movie, and, rather than being aghast, I was mostly impressed with how costume designer Jen Caprio made this work on stage.
The skit to which I had a visceral reaction was the musical number “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” in which Robin tells King Arthur the “news” that a show can’t succeed on Broadway “if we don’t have any Jews,” which includes such verses as:
They won’t care if it’s witty
or everything looks pretty
They’ll simply say it’s shitty, and refuse
The number features a re-creation of the bottle dance in Fiddler On The Roof, a huge Star of David in lights that rises to the rafters, and a marquee with the names of famous Jews of Broadway, such as Stephen Sondheim, and a Barbra Streisand impersonator who says “like butta.”
I understand that none of this is intended to be malicious, which is made clearer by two touches, one a new, timely punchline, the other an admission by one of the characters late in the musical that he is himself Jewish.
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“Well, it’s not the sort of thing you say to a heavily armed Christian”
But this bit was among the moments of “Spamalot” that I simply didn’t find funny, perhaps because of what’s going on in the world right now. Some may feel the same way about an extended gay-themed episode involving Ethan Slater as Prince Albert and Taran Killam as Sir Lancelot, who, when he realizes he’s gay, suddenly gets stripped of his medieval armor to reveal glittering disco party underwear underneath. The aggressiveness of the humor somewhat reminded me of the implicit “can’t you take a joke?” bullying that routinely accompanies an outsider’s insensitive ethnic remark at your expense. Plus the song about Jews is not true: “Spamalot” book writer, lyricist and co-composer Eric Idle is not Jewish (although three of the five other members of the very British Monty Python troupe are) and yet he certainly has succeeded on Broadway.
St. James Theater
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $39 – $199
Book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle
Directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes.
Scenic Design by Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design by Jen Caprio; Lighting Design by Cory Pattak; Sound Design by Kai Harada and Haley Parcher; Projection Design by Paul Tate dePoo III; Hair and Wig Design by Tom Watson;
Cast: Christopher Fitzgerald as Patsy, mayor, guard; James Monroe Iglehart as King Arthur, Taran Killam as Sir Lancelot and others, Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer the Lady of the Lake, Ethan Slater as historian, Prince Albert and 6 others, Jimmy Smagula as Dennis’s Mother. Belvedere and others, Michael Urie as Sir Robin and others, and Nik Walker as Sir Dennis Galahad and others.