Monday, Dec. 13, 2010

One Of The Best and Busiest Musical Comedies of The Past Decade

MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT trots through town again.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Judging from recent events, Broadway’s idea of taking chances is spending ridiculously large sums of money on projects that are otherwise more or less standard musicals. And while it is unlikely that the budget of the forthcoming Spider-Man will make enough money to last for more than a couple of months, the big chances being made her are by producers—this country’s biggest contribution to the theatrical stage rarely moves into the abstract experimentation that is the lifeblood of so many art forms.

One of the best American Musicals to hit the stage in the past decade, oddly enough, was the product of a British gentleman who decided to try a new show in Chicago. Years later, Eric Idle’s  Spamalot turns out to be a huge success the brilliantly synthesizes the classic feel of a musical from the golden age of Broadway with classic bits of heavily recycled sketch comedy bits that have proven to be alarmingly enduring over the years.

Based in part on the 1975 cult classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python’s Spamalot is a deft hybrid between the film and a standard musical comedy. The show rolled through town again this past weekend on its way to various other places. Having seen it again, it occurs to me that history will likely prove it to be the best musical comedy of the past decade.

The production design is directly taken from that of the film it’s based on . . . which works brilliantly with the Broadway-In-A-Box feel of traditional touring musicals. The endless references to the animation of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam is brilliantly synthesized with the kind of flat sets that fit into a touring trailer. Gilliam’s animation style consisted of moving around flat cut-outs that would later prove to be so economical in contemporary shows like South Park. The flat animation serves as a rich background for the show, with drawings quite specifically referencing Gilliam’s unique style. The costuming for the touring production is meticulously drawn from that of the original film as well, giving one the unnerving feeling of being in audience for a live performance of a film that is over 30 years old.

Leafing through the program, the differences between film and musical become quite apparent. The ample ensemble of the touring musical largely consists of musical theatre types. This is perfectly okay and nothing to be ashamed of, as one would expect a big, expensive touring musical to be populated almost exclusively with musical theatre types. The problem here is that the original film featured the talents of those talents that had been honed almost exclusively in sketch comedy. Though many of Monty Python’s members had studied music, their focus was on the comedy. The specific delivery and intonation that made those spoken lines so endlessly quotable fall kind of flat in a stage ensemble more focussed on entertaining with the sheer force of musical brilliance. The comedy suffers in the musical. Not that this is a huge problem for many in the audience who are familiar enough with the original film that they almost seem to applaud in advance of any given punch line. The cast seems to be okay with limiting itself to going through the motions of comedy that is guaranteed to hit the audience that loves the film . . . choosing to focus instead on the music and choreography that an audience may NOT be as familiar with.

I’d been thoroughly familiar with the film before I’d ever seen it. Nearly every line of the film had been quoted to me countless times by the time I saw it. I was lip-synching to the film the first time I popped it into a VHS player somewhere in 8th grade. The humor isn’t that appealing to me anymore, but the musical is. That Idle is able to entertain someone sick to death of the film is a huge accomplishment and testament to the brilliant instincts of the most musical Python. This is a musical well worth seeing—the comedy works even if you’ve heard it a million times in spite of the fact that it’s being delivered by those who haven’t been practicing sketch comedy as much as musical theatre.

The continued success of the touring production of the musical gives one hope that Spamalot  will eventually be licensed for production by smaller, regional companies. The visuals may not be as strikingly familiar in a lower-budget local production, but Monty Python and the Holy Grail has a kind of comic immortality that has people constantly quoting it decades after it was first released. The seemingly ubiquitous popularity of the film amongst theatre students to this day shows a kind of longevity that could result in all kinds of experimentation on a regional level that wouldn’t get in a big-budget touring production. Of particular interest here would be struggling, young sketch comic talent performing the musical with the kind of deft comic instincts given to those not destined to be in musical theatre. It’d be interesting to see what the next generation of comic talent could do with a musical.

The Touring production of Monty Python’s Spamalot continues in its unending journey. Its next stops are on various stages in Louisiana and Florida. The next Midwestern stop on the tour is Mason City Iowa next month . . . The next big musical to saunter through the Milwaukee Theatre is scheduled to be Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which runs April 15th-17th

 

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