Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013

Spamalot Done Small

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I had walked rather gingerly into the theatre. I'd seen touring productions of Monty Python's Spamalot on a couple of different occasions over the years. Here I was going in to see a local production on a much smaller stage on a much, much smaller budget than the one afforded a huge touring production. This was to be the inaugural production of Theatre Unchained--the theatre company so recently known as Carte Blanche. 


Though it has an appeal that needs no budget at all, so much of the spirit of the original Spamalot musical was tied up in big production. Everyone's familiar with the source material--Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It's likely that everyone going to see it has seen the film a million times. A big part of the appeal of seeing Eric Idle's musical "lovingly ripped off" from the movie is seeing a huge live production with big sets and endless costuming. The quest to find the Holy Grail ends up being a quest to produce a Broadway show for the Knights Who Say Ekke Ekke Ekke Ekke Ptangya Ziiinnggggggg Ni. (Formerly the Knights Who Say Ni.) In order to be a convincing conclusion, the resolution NEEDS to feel like a big Broadway show. There's even a gag in the script referring to an "expensive forrest" set. How can a small-scale production hope to capture that?


The answer, evidently, is that it doesn't have to. Eric Idle's musical passes the test. It's just as good in an intimate space as it is in a huge production. True, some of the appeal comes from the irrepressibly durable comedy that Monty Python wrote for the screen in the mid-1970s, but a great deal of it comes from that fact that director John Baiocchi does a good job of playing-up those elements of the comedy that work better in an intimate venue. True, the bigger elements of the play meant to be huge simply don't work here, but there's a solid amount of appeal in bringing Idle's work to the small stage. 


It helps that Baiocchi is working with a good cast here. Max Williamson is fun as King Arthur. He's got a sense of comic subtlety that has a chance to assert itself on more than one occasion. Alex Scheurell, who has worked on a number of local small-stage productions in the past really puts out a solid musical performance here as Galahad. I've seen him in musicals before, but I don't recall ever noticing how impressive his voice was in the past. Niko King is a dual-layered talent as the beautiful diva Lady of the Lake. She's got remarkably crisp comic instincts that play out onstage paired with a vocal musical talent that is not unreasonably dazzling. Her duet with Scheurell in "The Song That Goes Like This." (It's my favorite original bit Idle threw in for the show and it's nice to see it brought to an intimate stage with such a sharp wit.) 


Given the intimacy of the studio theatre, Baiocchi has developed an interesting way of dealing with scenes that call for a bigger cast presence onstage. There's an interesting texture and temperament to the chorus girls (the Lady of the Lake's "Laker Girls") for the show. Alejandra Gonzales and Christina Schauer play with an energy that seems appealingly stuck in psycho high-speed, perpetually smiling cheerleader mode while Annie Lipski, Brittany Rae Bonell and Sara Wawrzyniak play the chorus with more of a range of personality. It's a fun contrastSuch details would get lost in a larger production, but here it adds comic depth to the experience. 


Of course, the real difficulty in staging a musical adaptation of a popular film with a fanatical following is that any piece of dialogue you're going to hear is going to sound a bit off because it's not the original cast in mid-'70s cinema form live onstage. It's a bit odd, but this particular staging actually has someone who goes dizzyingly high-fidelity with his performance. There's someone here who seems vaguely cloned from one of the original Pythons. M. Caleb Wohlust not only bears a rather disturbingly strong resemblance to Cleese, he also sounds a lot like him in the role of Lancelot. I'm sort of taking these pictures out of context but glance below. 



That's Cleese on the left. It's not a perfect match but . . . Wohlust is even approximately the right height to be a young John Cleese. It's weird. I sat there watching him in the Swamp Castle scene and the similarity was almost a little unnerving. You don't expect this kind of similarity when it comes along in a show like this. . . it's a novel little addition when it DOES come along, though . . . and it's a fun addition to a largely enjoyable show. 


The Theatre Unchained production of Spamalot runs through September 20th at the space on 1024 South 5th Street. For ticker reservations, call 414-391-7145 or visit Theatre Unchained online. 

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