Last theater season, Aaron Sorkin disappointed generations of Camelot fans (especially, my friend and plus one Vince) by turning its, admittedly, clunky book into an even clunkier one. Blessedly, another musical take on the Arthurian legend, the current revival of Monty Python’s Spamalot–not seen on Broadway since 2009, when its tremendously successful Tony-laden run concluded–is not burdened by a plot that has ever required improving or any mental effort to follow.
With haughtily unacknowledged help from his devoted minion Patsy (Christopher Fitzgerald), King Arthur (James Monroe Iglehart) presses into service a delightfully bastardized collection of knights to, after a lot of mucking around, find the Holy Grail at the behest of a deeply annoyed God (voiced with wonderful jerkiness by an uncredited actor) who intercedes with this divine McGuffin if only to move things along. Call it a Deux ex no-more-horseplay. Obviously, though, there aren’t any real horses in Spamalot; that would be expensive and messy (and possibly illegal). Instead, all the audience sees, and hears, is Patsy obediently simulating the sound of their clippety-clop with bisected coconuts.
As it happens, Eric Idle, who “lovingly ripped off” the British comedy troupe Monty Python–of which he was a member–to write the book and lyrics for Spamalot, cannot be bothered to adhere to the teeniest amount of plot, even with an admonishment from the Heavens (Paul Tate dePoo III’s Pythonesque projection of the Lord Almighty, as well as his Pythonesque name, are equally perfect). With blasphemous disregard, Idle and composer John Du Prez’s Broadway show eventually becomes a quest for creating a Broadway show, with The Lady of the Lake (Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer) ultimately informing King Arthur, Wizard-of-Oz-style, that he’s been in a Broadway show the whole time. But, if you’re a tiresomely plot-obsessed, Aaron-Sorkin-type, you need not fret, because Idle doesn’t leave that Holy Grail thread just hanging. He resolves it in an inventively charming, half-remembered way.
Still, whatever faint accommodations he grants it, for Idle, structure is the enemy of joy, which every aspect of Spamalot is relentlessly intent on delivering, not only from a few well-performed and well-known old Monty Python bits (the Knights Who Say “Ni!”; the French Taunter; the Black Knight) but also through amusing allusions to classic Broadway musicals that Aaron Sorkin was never given the chance to ruin. To be sure, it is fan service on a couple fronts, forming a Venn Diagram highlighting anyone who adores, for example, how Idle’s brainy, irreverent silliness transforms Stephen Sondheim’s song “Another Hundred People” from Company into a running plague count. It takes incredibly varied abilities to appealingly belt out Sondheim while landing that joke, which Ethan Slater, as the dejected Prince Herbert, does impressively and without remotely shortchanging either responsibility.
It’s also only one of the eight supporting roles the indefatigable Slater performs, a high-energy quality demanded from several members of the stellar cast as they whirl between multiple characters and their accompanying costumes (eye-poppingly designed by Jen Caprio). Saturday Night Live veteran Taran Killam gets to wear a few of the more outlandish ones inspired by the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the primary–though, certainly not only–fount of Python nostalgia in Spamalot. Given his sketch-comedy pedigree, Killam is able to skillfully bound from fully absurd characters like the horned Tim the Enchanter to the dashingly subdued and valiant Sir Lancelot. During the performance I attended, Killam also good-naturedly reprimanded a theatergoer for loudly ruining familiar punchlines.
As for a knight of questionable courage, the wardrobe changes for Michael Urie’s Sir Robin are the easiest, and funniest, to predict, because they are often preceded by the character soiling himself from fear. Director and choreographer Josh Rhodes amply rewards this comic indignity by helping Urie astound the audience with a stunning homage to the bottle dance from Fiddler on the Roof (grails substitute for bottles). It’s part of a larger number about the long and indelible connection between theater and the Jewish community, with current thoughts about the outside world unavoidably distracting from what’s onstage. But it quickly becomes evident that Spamalot has no quarter for sadness; it’s a fortress of merrymaking that won’t let anything serious breach its walls.
And, so, we’re on to the “Diva’s Lament,” an opportunity for Kritzer to both gut-bustingly complain about her character being sidelined in the second act and flaunt a set of pipes that absolutely brings down the house. Bracketing this understandable fit of pique, Kritzer cordially reins in her formidable voice for “The Song That Goes Like This,” a melty and meta duet with Nik Walker’s Sir Dennis Galahad that she later reprises with Iglehart’s King Arthur for a grand finale that is, to say the least, blithely connubial: “we are not yet dead, so we might as well get wed.” Although the love triangle between Arthur, Galahad (Lancelot’s heart belongs to another), and The Lady of the Lake (she has a secret identity) is thoroughly undeveloped, it’s still much, much better than the one Aaron Sorkin wrote (did I mention that the revised Camelot was bad?).
Spamalot (through April 28, 2024)
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 888-985-9421 or visit http://www.spamalotthemusical.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission