A 2011 ABC/People magazine readers’ poll ranked Monty Python and the Holy Grail the second-best comedy movie ever. Not even Casablanca has more compulsively quotable lines, and even a moderate Python fan can spew out at least a few at the slightest provocation. Filmed in 1975 under chaotic conditions on an absurdly low budget, Python’s irreverent mangling of Arthurian legend remains a beloved, enduring classic of comic cinema.
Sad to say, none of the Python troupe made much money off their original BBC-TV series or their early movie projects. So it should have surprised no one when, circa 2003, self-styled “Greedy Bastard” Eric Idle spotted the commercial potential of a musical version, glowing in the skies like a Terry Gilliam animation of the mystical drinking vessel itself. He set to work adapting it for the stage, writing the book and lyrics himself and collaborating with John Du Prez on most of the music. (Two songs, “Knights of the Round Table” and “Brave Sir Robin,” had already been composed by Neil Innes for the film version, while Idle’s own “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” had originally surfaced in the crucifixion scene at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)
And so it was that Spamalot came into being. The original 2005 Broadway production, directed by Mike Nichols, won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and three Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Lyrics for Idle himself. It ran for four years, went on to London’s West End in 2006 and has been performed in more than 20 countries, despite the fact that some of its jokes don’t translate very well to other cultures.
Notable among the latter is the politically incorrect song “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (If You Don’t Have Any Jews).” Even in Dutchess County last weekend, it left an apparently-nearly-exclusively-goyish audience a little nonplussed and shy about laughing out loud as the energetic dancers at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck went through their paces of parodying such Broadway chestnuts as Fiddler on the Roof. By evening’s end, however, the audience was cheering wildly for Up in One Productions’ high-spirited rendition of Spamalot, which will continue to run through October 27.
You don’t need to be a diehard fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to enjoy this production, though it certainly helps. Certain cherished routines from the movie are preserved nearly verbatim in Spamalot, including the argument over the aerodynamics of coconut-laden swallows, King Arthur’s eerie encounter with the Knights Who Say “Ni!” and the bizarre taunts thrown (along with a cow) by the French guards at the “silly English kniggits” who are besieging their castle. If you’re a true believer, you may find that at times your lips move along with the actors.
On the other hand, whole scenes from the movie were excised in the move to Broadway: the “How do you know she’s a witch?” routine, for example, and the sore trial of Galahad’s purity by Zoot and her sisters at Castle Anthrax. (I must admit to a bit of disappointment that Brave Sir Robin’s annoying minstrels don’t end up being eaten, even offstage.) New numbers were added, however, that better exploit the potential of the stage musical genre.
There’s even an arbitrary romantic subplot pairing Arthur with the Lady of the Lake, who gets to belt out a funny Lloyd-Webberesque power ballad called “The Diva’s Lament (Whatever Happened to My Part?)” after she has been kept offstage for too long. The finale is much more suitable to a stage musical as well (though just about anything might be more appropriate than the abrupt ending of the movie).
The Up in One cast and director Kevin Archambault are clearly more than up to the task of bringing this extremely silly opus to life onstage. Bill Ross is an unfailingly earnest and idealistic Arthur, staying admirably deadpan throughout all the absurd goings-on around him, and he sings very well. Emily Woolever is an excellent belter who brings plenty of diva attitude and presence to the Lady of the Lake role. Several of the actors who play Knights of the Round Table also double hilariously in bit parts, and the entire ensemble carries on with great comic skill and an evident love of the material.
Particularly outstanding is Deitz Farcher as Arthur’s faithful “horse” Patsy: He doesn’t have the greatest singing voice, but his inspired mugging, asides and double-takes make him easily the funniest guy in the cast. He even looks quite a bit like Gilliam in the movie version, and his equine coconut-clacking skills are above reproach.
Watching Farcher also brings home the props-and-costume crew’s dedication to replicating the source material visually as closely as possible on a tight budget. Patsy’s backpack, for example, looks just like the one worn by Gilliam in the movie (though I found myself racking my brains trying to remember if the original really had a golf club sticking out of it). The chief Knight Who Says “Ni!” looms menacingly on stilts, Tim the Enchanter sports the requisite ram’s-horns headdress and thick Scottish burr, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog is a fearsomely fanged puppet and the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch looks like something that a pope would carry in a procession.
All in all, it’s a most satisfying production that will leave you feeling weak and wheezy from giggling by the end. Curtain time for Spamalot is 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets cost $26 and $24, and can be ordered by calling the box office at (845) 876-3080 or online at www.centerforperformingarts.org. Get yours now, and don’t forget to “Jetez la vache!”
Monty Python’s Spamalot, October 25, 26 & 27, Friday/Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 3 p.m., $26/$24, Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, 661 Route 308, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-3080, www.centerforperformingarts.org.