New York may have had first dibs on Eric Idle's musical adaptation (or as the posters and programs call it, rip off) of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," but something feels gloriously right about the show's run in London. The stars are where they should be, the planets are in their proper positions and "Spamalot" is in the West End.
The production, directed by film director Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf," amongst others), stars the original sweet transvestite, Tim Curry. The show's Broadway run garnered rave reviews and an armful of Tony Awards. Of course, one cannot forget that it is based on a film with a fan base that knows the film verbatim and is quite willing to do a one-person show of it upon request. That is quite a pedigree.
The comedy group Monty Python, which started on TV in the sketch comedy show "Monty Python's Flying Circus" reveled in silly, surreal humor that played on the absurdities of society, history and life.
Only former Python Idle had anything to do with the writing of this latest carnation of the Monty Python brand, although John Cleese, perhaps the most famous Python has a cameo as the voice of God.
Idle had the difficult task of incorporating all the best bits from the film, along with new material and new songs. "Holy Grail" only featured one song, ("The Knights of the Round Table," which for the musical is expanded to an elaborate Las Vegas style production) and yet Idle has written a series of songs that stay faithful to the spirit of the film at the same time that they lampoon pretense of musical theatre.
It is hard to imagine what the uninitiated will make of "Spamalot," as this is very much a production tailored to fans. Even so, the show is funny and even those unfamiliar with Python are sure to find plenty to laugh at. The production works as both a reworking of the film and a satire of musicals.
As in the film, the plot, which centers on King Arthur (Curry) and his knights search for the Holy Grail, is inconsequential and is merely an excuse for a series of gags that parody Arthurian legend, politics, religion, history and sexuality. It is all rather silly, but it takes a lot of wit and intellect to do silly this well.
For those familiar with the film, all your favorite parts are here, the Knights Who Say Ni, the Black Knight, the French Taunters, the killer bunny and other classic bits. This well-known material is expanded upon and played with vigor and impeccable comic timing by Curry and the rest of the cast, who like in the Python shows and films take on multiple roles.
The biggest new addition to the musical is Hannah Waddingham's Lady of the Lake. Waddingham gets some of the best, most satirical songs and has vocal prowess to sell them big with tongue firmly placed in cheek. The role calls for her to mock the often overblown singing style of musicals. It is a plum role for an actress/singer and Waddingham nails it.
The production's best musical set piece has to go to, "You Won't Succeed." Arthur is not only on a quest for the Holy Grail, but to put on a musical in the West End. Sadly, as Sir Robin (Robert Hands) informs him, he won't succeed in showbiz without a Jew.
The number, which may sound gimmicky in mere description, is riotously funny in execution and for sheer outrageous irreverence is on par within from Mel Brooks' "The Producers."
Perhaps the only forced part of the production is Idle's attempt to sneak in the most famous Python song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" into the show. It is the only moment of gratuitous filler.
The song originally appeared in "The Life of Brian," sung by what can only be described as a crucified chorus of slaves. Pulled out of its original context the song loses some of its ironic punch.
Given the song's popularity, it was probably inevitable it would show up here, but Idle's attempt to work it in falls flat. It works much better when brought back at the end of the show as an audience sing-a-long that ends the show on a high note, ensuring the audience will leave the theatre with goofy grins plastered across their faces.