The silly season is now upon us, and there may only be one way to deal with the comic lunacy currently holding forth on stage at Broadway's Shubert Theatre. Surrender.
Otherwise, you will find yourself at sea during "Monty Python's Spamalot," a lavish, live-action, aggressively antic version of a certain cult movie put together three decades ago by a group of seriously funny Brits.
You have to be grateful that its creators, as well as its savvy director, Mike Nichols, didn't call the show, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail - the Musical," the film on which this show is based and which includes the line, "'I eat ham and jam and spam a lot!"
Its authors have had to walk a precarious line - pleasing those fanatical Python fans who have committed the entire movie script to memory while satisfying other theatergoers who never have heard of the Killer Rabbit, the Knights who say "Ni" or that cheeky French soldier who hurls insults such as "your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!"
For much of the time, they succeed.
The original Python bits, still witty after all those years, are replicated with surprising authenticity by a strong cast that includes David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry and Hank Azaria.
Curry, with his delightful Cheshire cat grin, has a natural authority as Arthur, the king in search of a few knights to help him find the Holy Grail. He's the glue that holds together the episodic story line, concocted from the original by Python veteran Eric Idle, who also wrote the sprightly lyrics and co-wrote the music with John Du Prez.
The two others play multiple roles. Pierce spends most of the evening as the brave Sir Robin, the less-than-courageous knight, while Azaria is particularly fine as the odious French taunter and as Tim the Enchanter.
Which brings us to the rest of the musical. To fill out the story, ldle has added a new plot, in which Arthur and his knights must perform that most daunting of tasks - bringing a musical to Broadway.
This allows ldle and company to poke fun at the entire genre, from "Fiddler on the Roof" to "The Phantom of the Opera." The attempt is similar to what Gerard Alessandrini has been doing so well off-Broadway for more than two decades with his "Forbidden Broadway" revues. Only "Spamalot" does it on a much more lavish scale – and with middling success.
The show indulges every bit of musical-comedy madness - tweaking, twirling and more often that not sending up those cliches so dear to hearts of those who love shows. In Act I, there's a particularly delicious spoof of Las Vegas revues that features some gloriously tacky dance routines by the show's promising choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, and a star turn by Sara Ramirez, who seems to be channeling Liza Minnelli by way of Cher.
Ramirez is a voluptuous, vocally powerful siren who plays the Lady in the Lake, a part that basically evaporates after intermission. So the authors have given her a song called "The Diva's Lament" in the second half to complain about her role. Unfortunately, it fizzles into strenuousness.
One of the most consistent pleasures in "Spamalot" is watching several members of the supporting cast get a moment in the spotlight.
Besides Ramirez, they include Michael McGrath, a superb song-and-dance man, playing Arthur's dutiful factotum, the aptly named Patsy. He brings down the house with a Gene Kelly-inspired number called "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," a song actually lifted from another Python film, "Life of Brian."
Christopher Sieber, gets to primp as Sir (Dennis) Galahad, and ham it up with Ramirez as they work their way hilariously through an Andrew Lloyd Webber-style love duet called "The Song That Goes Like This."
And Christian Borle is endearingly goofy as Not Dead Fred, the song-and-dance corpse, and as Herbert, the gayest of princes, who finds a soul mate in Sir Lancelot, played by Azaria. If their big number predictably recycles Peter Allen (with a bit of Carmen Miranda thrown in for good measure), they play the cliche for all it's worth.
Another cliche that gets a workout - and uproarious audience approval - is a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song that has Sir Robin proclaiming, "You won't succeed on Broadway if don't have any Jews," a topic mined with greater wit (believe it or not) in "The Producers."
But then recognition seems to be the name of the game in "Spamalot" - whether in the show's celebration of its cinematic predecessor, the collective works of the American and British musical theater or politically incorrect stereotypes. Nichols and company make it go down easily. And besides, that Killer Rabbit sure is cute.
The six young men who created Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1969 produced a comic style that was inventive, extraordinarily literate and wonderfully lunatic, one of the most dazzling of the 20th century.
Much of that inspired zaniness is apparent in "Monty Python's Spamalot," an adaptation by Eric Idle and John Du Prez of the 1975 movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
I became a Pythonmaniac in 1972 when I heard "The Death of Mary, Queen of Scots," the sketch than ends with an exploding penguin. If my enthusiasm for the stage version of their work is limited, it's not because I don't get their humor.
Perhaps if I didn't know their sketches by heart, I might have been more charmed by this incarnation. So if you have no idea what the significance of a killer rabbit is, you might enjoy it more.
It is amazing that Mike Nichols, who directed the production, and his crew have found so many ways to create stage approximations of what was clearly conceived for film - even, astonishingly, the bloody duel with the Black Knight, who refuses to stop fighting when he has lost his arms and legs.
But all too often I was reminded of "Mamma Mia!" - the Python fans around me greeted familiar routines the way the "Mamma Mia!" audience laughed when it recognized the ABBA songs in their new context.
This kind of "recycling" encourages the audience to congratulate itself for what it already knows, rather than experience anything fresh. (Maybe that's not a bad thing, since "Mamma Mia!" is likely the most successful musical in theater history.)
Moreover, although the dialogue from the movie (like a debate about the ability of a swallow to carry a coconut, or the taunting of the nasty French person) remains delicious, the new material is less impressive - especially the songs, with lyrics by ldle and music by Idle and John Du Prez.
In the second act, for example, The Knights Who Say Ni demand that King Arthur and his followers write a musical and take it to Broadway.
The numbers that follow seem like sketches for "Forbidden Broadway," though not as sharp. In some cases, they even seem like tepid echoes of "The Producers."
One of the things that set the Pythons apart was the rhythm of their shows. One sketch dovetailed loopily into another. Sometimes a sketch would stop dead in its tracks, be interrupted by something "completely different" and then resume. This might have been attempted here.
Still, the cast, under Nichols' direction, performs its tasks with endearing gusto. Tim Curry has a jolly time as King Arthur. David Hyde Pierce plays several parts splendidly and is at his most droll as he listens nervously to Christian Borle singing about his impending heroism.
Hank Azaria is oddly endearing in his various roles, even as the sneering Frenchman. "Forbidden Broadway" alumnus Michael McGrath handles everything with expected aplomb, and Christopher Sieber is genuinely heroic as Sir Dennis Galahad and others.
Sara Ramirez is smashing as the Lady of the Lake, especially in a song complaining about the size of her role.
Tim Hatley's set and costume designs capture the special wit of Terry Gilliam's animated drawings, which did so much to define the Python aura. Hugh Vanstone's lighting enhances the comedy.
I could admire all the affection and ingenuity that went into adapting "Spamalot" to the stage as well as the Herculean energy the cast puts into it.
I only wish had laughed more.
Bloody fantastic. Gorgeously silly. Superlative and better. "Monty Python's Spamalot," dazzlingly staged by Mike Nichols, opened last night at the Shubert Theatre, where it will hereafter delight lovers of Python's immortal Flying Circus, devotees of Spam and even those who've never heard of either.
The bizarre, merry lunacy of Monty Python, with its curiously British yet marvelously exportable sensibility, must be a difficult thing to bottle for Broadway consumption. How funny are coconuts economically doubling for horses - or a killer rabbit executing his rabid mayhem -for those who aren't yet aficionados?
Fortunately, "Spamalot" - described with telling accuracy as "lovingly ripped off from the motion picture 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail"' (accent on the ripped), offers virtually non-stop jokes.
Only the very dead could hold back their laughter, and even they would probably rattle a few appreciative bones.
Former Python Eric Idle wrote the lyrics and book, and assisted Python composer John Du Prez with the music.
Together they prove what Mel Brooks postulated with "The Producers": Anyone with a sense of the ridiculous and nostalgia - can write a Broadway musical.
The story, ostensibly about King Arthur and the search for some Holy Grail, is really about silliness and Broadway, and rife with Idle's wonderfully absurdist exchanges:
"Where are we going to find a shrubbery?"
"Well, maybe we can build one? Out of cats."
"Don't be ridiculous. Where are we going to find cats?"
Sam Beckett would have been proud of that.
As for Idle's lyrics - well, Noel Coward and Cole Porter might have produced a gems such as "There's a very small percentile/Who enjoys a dancing gentile."
That last is part of a show-stopper by David Hyde Pierce's elegant, poker-faced Sir Robin, who points out: "We won't succeed on Broadway if we don't have any Jews!"
The show itself is a sweetly wilted bouquet to the Great White Way, a heavy-handed but light-fingered pastiche with a deliciously pompous Christopher Sieber as a popinjay Sir Galahad taking the mock out of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bernstein and Sondheim, as well as Boublil and Schonberg, the makers of "Les Miz."
The nuttily funny Hank Azaria, who clearly has a ball playing the nasty French Taunter, is also Sir Lancelot the (closeted) gay knight (if you have to have Jews for Broadway, you also have to have a few gays), complete with a Peter Allen routine.
These Knights to Remember - and the wenches they brought with them - make up a Round Table of supreme excellence.
At its head, Tim Curry, his indomitably jolly face registering a sunset range of long-suffering concern, makes a great King Arthur whose reign has come.
Steve Rosen and Christian Borle glitter in a variety of roles, and Michael McGrath, playing his coconuts with virtuoso skill, proves cheerfully woebegone as Arthur's sidekick, Patsy.
Then there is the surprise hit of the show: Sara Ramirez, who sings like a trouper and keeps dazzlingly afloat as the Lady of the Lake.
They've all been royally treated by Nichols, who stages the glorious shebang with a daring spontaneity, as if he were making the entire thing up as he went along. He has "Spamalot" working with a glossy grandeur, without a single fail from comic grace.
He's helped by the boisterous choreography of newcomer Casey Nicholaw, Tim Hatley's crazily imaginative and brilliant sets and costumes, Hugh Vanstone's particularly illuminating lighting and an altogether perfect cast.
This is one of those Broadway shows of shows. Steal a ticket, even if you have to get a killer rabbit to help.
The meeting of the Broadway chapter of the Monty Python fan club officially came to order - or to be exact, came to disorder - last night at the Shubert Theater with the opening of "Monty Python's Spamalot," a resplendently silly new musical.
Favorite routines first created by that surreal British comedy team for the 1975 movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" were performed with an attention to detail found among obsessive history buffs who re-enact Civil War battles on weekends. Python songs were sung with the giggly glee of naughty Boy Scouts around a campfire. And festive decorations were provided in the form of medieval cartoon costumes and scenery helpfully described in the show as "very expensive."
It seems safe to say that such a good time is being had by so many people (including the cast) at the Shubert Theater that this fitful, eager celebration of inanity will find a large and lucrative audience among those who value the virtues of shrewd idiocy, artful tackiness and wide-eyed impiety. That includes most school-age children as well as grown-ups who feel they are never more themselves than when they are in touch with the nerdy, nose-thumbing 12-year-olds who reside within.
"Spamalot," which is directed (improbably enough) by that venerable master of slickness Mike Nichols, is the latest entry in the expanding Broadway genre of scrapbook musical theater. Such ventures, which include flesh-and-blood versions of Disney cartoons and jukebox karaoke shows like "Mamma Mia!," reconstruct elements from much-loved cultural phenomena with wide fan bases. Only rarely do these productions match, much less surpass, the appeal of what inspired them. Generally, they simply serve as colorful aides-mémoire for the pop group, television show or movie to which they pay tribute. Within this category, "Spamalot" ranks high, right up there with (try not to wince, Pythonites) the sweetly moronic "Mamma Mia!," which repackages the disco hits of Abba into a comfy singalong frolic.
This means it is possible for theatergoers who are not Python devotees to enjoy themselves at "Spamalot," which has a book and lyrics by Eric Idle (an original Python) and music by John Du Prez and Mr. Idle. It would seem unchivalrous not to share in at least some of the pleasure that is being experienced by a cast that includes Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce and a toothsome devourer of scenery named Sara Ramirez.
Still, the uninitiated may be bewildered when laughs arrive even before a scene gets under way. The mere appearance of a figure in a certain costume (say, a headpiece with ram's horns) or the utterance of a single word (i.e., "ni") is enough to provoke anticipatory guffaws among the cognoscenti. Punch lines come to seem almost irrelevant.
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" was the first film feature from a troupe that revolutionized sketch comedy. First seen on British television in 1969 with the series "Monty Python's Flying Circus," this group of Oxbridge-erudite young Brits (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Mr. Idle) and one American soul mate (Terry Gilliam) combined the anarchy of the Marx Brothers with a rarefied British spirit of absurdity and a straight-faced irreverence regarding all sacred cows. "The Holy Grail" stayed true to the formula of the Python television series, channeling the troupe's vision of a disjointed world of colliding sensibilities and cultural references into a retelling of the myth of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
Much of the joy of "The Holy Grail" lies in its imaginative use of its low budget, turning limited locations and homemade props into a comment on the bogusness of cinematic authenticity. And the cast peerlessly delivered its fatuous material with unconditional sincerity.
The moviemaker's self-consciousness that infused "The Holy Grail" has been reconceived in theatrical terms for "Spamalot." (Tim Hatley's deliriously artificial sets and costumes bring to mind a collaboration between a cynical Las Vegas resort designer and a stoned class committee for a junior-senior prom.) So the fractured tale of the quest of King Arthur (Mr. Curry) and his ditsy knights for the Holy Grail has been woven into another quest: that of bringing the king and his entourage to the enchanted land called Broadway.
This expressed goal makes "Spamalot" a two-tiered operation. On the one hand there is the dutiful acting out of the movie's most famous set pieces (the killer-rabbit scene, the bring-out-your-dead scene, the taunting Frenchman scene, etc.). On the other hand, and (surprisingly) it's the friskier hand, the show spoofs classic song-and-dance extravaganzas, suggesting what the satiric revue "Forbidden Broadway" might be like if it had an $11 million budget.
The vignettes lifted straight from the movie have an ersatz quality, in the way of secondhand jokes that are funnier in their original context. Broadway performance demands an exaggeration that doesn't always jibe with the unblinking earnestness of the Python style. (The interpolated song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" loses the shock appeal it had when it was first sung, by a chorus of men nailed to crucifixes, in another Python movie, "Life of Brian.")
That said, Mr. Azaria (part of the brilliant team of voices behind "The Simpsons" cartoon series) plies his sterling mimetic skills to evoke exactly such fabled figures from the film as the towering Knight of Ni (he wears stilts), the inept warlock known as Tim the Enchanter and the nasty French Taunter who specializes in English-baiting insults. (Mr. Azaria's main role, by the way, is Lancelot, who finds happiness when he discovers his inner Peter Allen.)
Mr. Curry, of the "Rocky Horror Picture Show," is the best of the cast at translating classic Python style into a musical-comedy idiom. His stalwart, plummy-voiced Arthur wears a smile as inflexible as armor, and it deflects any suggestion that this manly king is in on the show's jokes.
Christopher Sieber - who, like most of the cast, plays an assortment of roles - is delightful as a Sir Galahad who tosses his blond tresses as if he were auditioning for a Clairol commercial. And Mr. Hyde Pierce (famous as the neurotic Niles on the sitcom "Frasier") appears to be having such a fine time that it seems impolite to observe that he is not a natural for this material. Still, in the role of the cowardly Sir Robin, he brings a genial Rex Harrison-style dapperness to a patter number about the importance of including Jews in any Broadway show.
The moments when "Spamalot" rises into the ether are those in which it pays homage - à la "The Producers" - to other kinds of Broadway musicals, with bobble-headed nods to the Vegas revue thrown in. The "Knights of the Round Table" number that introduces the swinging pleasure palace called Camelot is a deliciously cheesy, cheesecake-laden floor show, with Arthur morphing into a Rat Pack-style master of ceremonies. (Casey Nicholaw is the choreographer.)
But the tastiest satiric juice is provided by Ms. Ramirez, who plays Arthur's buxom but ethereal love interest, the Lady of the Lake. Whether warmly overseeing her (yes) Laker girls as they cheer the knights, mangling a soul ballad "American Idol"-style or working the stage like Liza at Caesars Palace, Ms. Ramirez knows how to send up vintage performance styles until they go into orbit. The evening's high point involves Ms. Ramirez and Mr. Sieber floating on stage in a boat, illuminated by a newly descended chandelier.
Music of the night, indeed. But what turns this fanged tribute to "The Phantom of the Opera" into more than a one-joke routine is the song, a cunning deconstruction of the repetitive, voice-taxing Andrew Lloyd Webber method titled "The Song That Goes Like This." "Spamalot" also cheerfully invokes the gleaming anthems of hope from shows like "Man of La Mancha" and the camp, pelvis-pumping chorus of "The Boy From Oz."
Do these disparate elements hang together in any truly compelling way? Not really. That "Spamalot" is the best new musical to open on Broadway this season is inarguable, but that's not saying much. The show is amusing, agreeable, forgettable - a better-than-usual embodiment of the musical for theatergoers who just want to be reminded now and then of a few of their favorite things.
Go ahead and believe the buzz emanating from the Shubert Theatre. Eric Idle and Mike Nichols have indeed fashioned a Holy Grail of a big, crowd-pleasing Broadway musical comedy out of the 1975 cult film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The show slays 'em like Excalibur.
"Monty Python's Spamalot" is so polished and user-friendly, in fact, that those whose adolescences were irreparably warped by "The Holy Grail" - and we know who we are - will miss the low-budget flick's spiky, unapologetic anarchy.
Although the movie never really bothered with such inconveniences as plot or character development, Idle, one of the original members of the groundbreaking British comedy troupe Monty Python, has given "Spamalot" a smidge of a story. It's just enough to make it plain that nothing much happens here except a nominal excuse for entirely gratuitous, occasionally inspired silliness.
The unevenly amusing Arthurian antics are presented with so much panache, however, that it's probably churlish to complain. Under the assured, regally goofy direction of Nichols, the all-star team of David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier"), Hank Azaria ("The Simpsons") and Tim Curry ("The Rocky Horror Picture Show") have an obvious blast as the knights whose quest for the Holy Grail leads them to a carnivorous bunny, a taunting Frenchman and a preposterously tenacious Black Knight.
The breakout in this boys' club, though, proves to be the show's leading lady, Sara Ramirez, playing both the Lady of the Lake and, in typically self-aware Python fashion, the stage diva playing the Lady. Looking demonically possessed by her own sense of melodrama, Ramirez channels everyone from Sarah Brightman to Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch. She owns every self-indulgent display of vocal acrobatics with a hilarious intensity that makes the character all her own.
Curry, evincing not the slightest effort to conceal his amusement with himself, oozes good-natured smarm as Arthur. Hyde Pierce, portraying the cowardly knight Sir Robin (among others), underplays the comedy so slyly that you might not notice how meticulously he has modulated his performance. Azaria gets all the really fun parts, playing not only the butch Sir Lancelot, but also hamming it up as a vulgar French taunter and a woozy Knight of Ni.
Invaluable contributions come from the elastic Christian Borle, in a variety of roles that include the girly Prince Herbert; Christopher Sieber, as a vainly blond Sir Galahad, and Michael McGrath, as the grubby second-fiddle who clip-clops those famous coconuts.
Idle and composer John Du Prez endow "Spamalot" with its own anthem, "Find Your Grail," both deeply dopey and kind of sweet in spite of itself, and a mock power ballad called "The Song That Goes Like This." Both are more successful than the second-act tunes about Jews and gays, which offer little more than warmed-over political incorrectness.
Set and costume designer Tim Hatley draws equally from the medieval cartoons from the movie and the glitz of old-fashioned Broadway. Python purists may wish that the show as a whole resorted less often to cheerily stupid razzle-dazzle: The Lady of the Lake's "Laker Girls," complete with pompoms, and a Vegas-ized Camelot are among the show's less clever components.
Still, the creators of "Spamalot" make an effort to include a little something for everyone. If the opening nonsense about Finland doesn't rouse so much as a giggle, don't miss the fake in-depth program notes for a musical about the Finnish economy. It's some of the funniest original material of the evening.
Somewhere on the mythical Isle of Avalon, King Arthur is rolling over in his grave - and laughing till his armor rattles.
In Monty Python's Spamalot (* * * out of four), the new musical "lovingly ripped off" from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, England's great leader of legend is at once reduced and rejuvenated by some of the funniest antics introduced on a Broadway stage since...well, since the dawn of another musical lovingly ripped off from a cult comedy classic: Mel Brooks' The Producers.
Though Spamalot just opened Thursday at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, ticket sales and critical buzz have had industry insiders invoking the P-word for months. At first blush, linking the Pythons' wit and Brooks' humor may seem like comparing bitters to borscht.
But for all their differences, the British troupe and the Brooklyn-born trouper subscribe to the same fundamental rule: Nothing is too sacred or too silly to get a few laughs.
For founding Python member Eric Idle, Spamalots author and lyricist, that includes both musical theater and more pervasive aspects of American pop culture. Allusions to West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and Company accompany references to Britney Spears and Michael Moore.
Unlike Brooks and other, more affectionate parodists, Idle approaches his subjects with the cool and sometimes snooty detachment of a deliberate outsider. A diva-like figure called the Lady of the Lake, played by the aggressively hyped Sara Ramirez, is inserted into the plot as a construct to send up all things banal and excessive about middlebrow entertainment. By the time Ramirez has scatted and slithered through her third overblown number, the joke has been stretched as thin as the costumes that Tim Hatley paints on her buxom figure.
Spamalot is much more inspired when it sticks to the kind of droll characters and wry pranks that made Python an institution. The show's musical numbers, which Idle composed with longtime collaborator John Du Prez, include the jaunty Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, originally performed in the cheerful crucifixion scene that concluded Monty Python's Life of Brian. Here it becomes a motivational tune for Arthur, whom Tim Curry deftly reinvents as a drily pompous depressive.
Director Mike Nichols, reclaiming his comic roots after last year's intense Closer, culls equally winning performances from Curry's American co-stars. Hank Azaria, by all accounts a rabid Python fan since his youth, expertly revives the French Taunter and the Knight of Ni and also is hilarious as an unconventional Sir Lancelot. David Hyde Pierce is a deadpan delight as the more fainthearted Sir Robin.
An excellent supporting cast helps ensure that Spamalot has the kind of egalitarian appeal that the founder of the Round Table would have approved of - which should be good news for the real-life producers banking on the show's long-term prospects.
The low-cuisine institution known as Spam is a processed lunch meat whose ingredients are ground to a medium-coarse texture, with spices added to boost the flavor. Not exactly a dish for subtle palates, but consumers have kept cans flying off shelves for decades. Taking a beloved 1975 comedy that causes armies of middle-age Pythonheads to regress into tittering teenage nerdhood, and stirring in an ample helping of self-reflexive Broadway musical silliness that owes much to "The Producers," "Monty Python's Spamalot" adopts a similarly unrefined recipe. The show is an even more episodic patchwork than the British comedy team's movies, but the irreverent Arthurian romp's brash, lunatic spirit is impossible to ignore and almost as hard to resist.
The hunger in the Broadway community to embrace a monster hit is palpable. And, as evidenced by the rivers of media ink, $16 million-plus in advance ticket sales and the lines snaking around the block at the Shubert Theater in hope of cancellations, "Spamalot" will fill that need. Fact that the show is more memorable on a scene-by-scene basis than as a somewhat forced package will matter little.
With the expert manipulation of director Mike Nichols and a cast riding high -- a little too high at times -- on infectious enjoyment, Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle and co-composer John Du Prez deliver a rowdy entertainment that remains sufficiently faithful to its source, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," to satisfy nostalgic fans, while broadening the humor to cast a wider net among musical theatergoers. Indeed, the legions of Python obsessives on the first press night were spewing laughter in anticipation of classic scenes or key dialogue from the movie. It's not hard to imagine an imminent future in which auds will be shouting along with vocal wizard Hank Azaria's French-accented taunt, "I wave my private parts at your aunties, you tiny-brained wipers of other people's bottoms."
What made the Python crew's humor so distinctive was its singular balance of the asinine with the academic, the political with the profane, plus the incomparable comic aplomb of its members, the only one of whom involved here -- aside from Idle -- is John Cleese in a routine drive-by as the (recorded) voice of God.
Try as they might, talented leads Azaria, Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce and Christopher Sieber are simply no match for the performers indelibly associated with this material. And with the exception of Curry, whose droll pomposity as King Arthur represents the closest approximation to the original, there's a much more expansive brand of mugging going on here.
Some of the simpler gags, like Arthur's lackey Patsy (Michael McGrath) clapping coconuts to evoke the sound of nonexistent horses' hooves, work just fine. But dialogue lifted almost verbatim, such as the opening discussion of the air-speed velocity of a swallow, feels too much like imitation delivered as comic discovery.
With help from Elaine J. McCarthy's animated projections and designer Tim Hatley's medieval-funhouse sets and costumes (with Terry Gilliam-style clouds hanging overhead), the show successfully appropriates the look of the Pythons' vintage TV skein and films, albeit with significant departures into glitzy, Vegas extravaganza. While they fail to find a worthy stage translation of the Black Knight's dismemberment, the creatives have developed workable formulas to replicate other seminal moments such as the catapulting cows and the vicious, cave-guarding killer bunny.
Like the film, Idle's book here is a string of comic sketches posing as an Arthurian epic, and the tuner works best when it re-imagines those scenes. Instilling fluidity or momentum into the slapdash chronicle of Arthur's recruitment of the knights and their quest for the Holy Grail was never going to be a prime concern.
The "Bring out your dead" scene is among the best expansions, with catchy tune "I'm Not Dead Yet" smoothly serving to enlist the prissy Sir Robin (Pierce) and brave Lancelot (Azaria) into Arthur's band of knights. Idle and Du Prez here display a better grasp of the conventions of advancing a narrative through song than might be expected. Likewise Lancelot's high-casualty rescue in act two of the fey Prince Herbert from marriage is a comic high point, not least thanks to Christian Borle's effetely antic perf.
While the Python movies often stepped outside the narrative to wink at the audience, the show does so more insistently. After both "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Spamalot," which follow the lead of "The Producers" in kicking down the fourth wall with unrelenting frequency, it might be time to call a moratorium on Broadway musicals pastiching themselves with knowing smugness. This strain gets stretched to exasperation when the Knights who say "Ni" modify their original request for a shrubbery to demand consecration of Arthur and his men in a Broadway show.
The introduction of the Lady of the Lake as a significant player allows for both a legitimate distaff character -- women mostly are relegated to squawking drag appearances in the Python canon -- and for an invigorating comic turn by Sara Ramirez, who hilariously takes on Cher, Liza Minnelli, Lola Falana, Joey Heatherton and just about every other brassy Vegas headliner as she shimmies into showgirl-populated Camelot. The Lady also scores when cheerleading through "Come With Me," belting out the overblown gospel thunder of "Follow Your Grail" and ascending with Galahad (Sieber) into the soaring romantic mush of Frank Wildhorn/Andrew Lloyd Webber territory in "The Song That Goes Like This," all of them distinct first-act peaks.
But Idle tends to sledgehammer a good gag to death, and latter song's two reprises succumb to overkill. Ditto the Lady's second-act song "The Diva's Lament," a furious protest at the diminishment of her role that stops the show dead in its tracks, tarnishing Ramirez's otherwise revelatory turn.
Each of the key thesps grabs the spotlight at some point, making this a refreshingly democratic ensemble show. After coasting through the first act with too little to do in his customary deadpan, Pierce comes alive in the splashy "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," in which he gives vent to Robin's song-and-dance ambitions and expounds on the necessity of Jews to make it on Broadway.
Azaria's big song, "His Name Is Lancelot," is a campy Peter Allen nightmare and feels like a strained derivation from "The Producers." But the vocally dexterous actor gets to shine in a number of character bits, notably as the Scots-brogued Tim the Enchanter and the shrill chief Knight of Ni.
In addition to Ramirez and Borle, McGrath impresses among the supporting cast as Arthur's sidekick, his thankless role wryly underlined in the king's "I'm All Alone."
While the laughs are by no means as steady or as hearty as they were first time around in "The Producers," or even in the far more musically robust "Hairspray," "Spamalot" has a boisterous energy that appropriately evokes the idea of naughty schoolboys running riot with a budget. That zestiness is enhanced by Casey Nicholaw's bouncy choreography, but it's driven primarily by Nichols' peerless skill in pulling together a show that's really just an unruly bundle of engaging bits and pieces, and giving it theatrical body.