Theater

'Spamalot,' Back With Its Loopy, Delightful Quest

Justin Patterson, Christopher Sutton, Patrick Heusinger and Kevin Crewell as the French Guards in the free-spirited Monty Python spoof at the National Theatre.
Justin Patterson, Christopher Sutton, Patrick Heusinger and Kevin Crewell as the French Guards in the free-spirited Monty Python spoof at the National Theatre. (Photos By Joan Marcus)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Monty Python's Spamalot" is back at the National Theatre, as gaudy and cheerfully derivative as ever. The 2005 Tony winner prances down the same trail blazed by Mel Brooks and "The Producers," spoofing its Broadway forerunners while cannily cannibalizing its own time-honored comic source.

That source is the incomparably silly 1975 movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which has many of its best bits fitted into this shameless song-and-dance and big-scenery extravaganza. The Knights Who Say Ni!, the murderous rabbit, the clopping of coconuts as a daffy King Arthur gallops along on his quest -- the hits are pretty much revived and given ample breathing room in the book by original Python Eric Idle.

By now the show's songs, which Idle penned with composer John Du Prez, might be nearly as iconic to fans (and there are plenty) who station themselves at the intersection of Python and Broadway. A number of patrons could be seen mouthing along Tuesday night, not just to the movie's beloved lines but also to the polka-paced "I Am Not Dead Yet" and the Andrew Lloyd Webber power-ballad parody that is "The Song That Goes Like This."

There can't be many comedy or showbiz tropes that director Mike Nichols doesn't know, and he marshals a lot of them into an irresistible force during the incredibly packed first act. (Guiding principle: Let's cram a lot into "Spamalot.") The curtain rises on the wrong show -- the droll program notes for that Nordic "Moosical" are included in the playbill -- then the action effortlessly zips through mud and plague to a Camelot rendered as a Las Vegas pleasure dome, complete with glitzy chorines (earlier seen as the mystical Lady of the Lake's Laker Girls).

The dance moves in Casey Nicholaw's choreography have all been done a thousand times before, but likely not in such anarchic combination. Almost everything about the show is familiar and free-spirited from the moment the lights come up on the Terry Gilliam-inspired fleshy clouds of Tim Hatley's cartoonish set. Hatley, who also designed the costumes, creatively melds the visual demands of the Pythons' low-budget shenanigans and Broadway's high-gloss aesthetic. That's "Spamalot": smartly put together and certainly not dead yet, at least as performed by the touring cast at the National.

Chief among returning players is Michael Siberry, whose King Arthur is delightfully obtuse and benign. Challenging the crude French taunters -- you remember them, especially the one who aggressively farts in your general direction -- or warbling the goal-oriented ballad "Find Your Grail," Siberry has an easygoing yet slightly pixilated quality that gives the mayhem a calm center.

Among the fresh faces, Patrick Heusinger proves comically flexible in the Lancelot-French Taunter-Knight of Ni-Tim the Enchanter part, and Esther Stilwell flaunts a dazzling smile and silver pipes as the Lady of the Lake. The Lady's songs are marked by attention-seeking ornamentation a la Mariah and Whitney, and while Stilwell navigates the zany heights, she doesn't entirely knock the numbers out of the park. Alas, she's merely very good.

So's most of the second act, which actually flags seriously from time to time (further shades of "The Producers"). Complaints? You could lodge a few, especially in regard to the musical spoof trend -- "Phantom," "Les Miz" and more get knocked around here -- that someday soon will have to wear thin.

At least the material is worn jauntily in this show, which continues to be a hit surrounded by what Stephen Colbert might call "hittiness." Former "American Idol" star Clay Aiken joins the Broadway cast next month, and limited premium seats at the National are priced at more than $175. (When did that Broadway habit migrate our way?) That's the Rialto, and it hardly kills the savvy joy of "Spamalot."

Audiences young and old could do worse than to discover a ticket or two in the holiday stocking, with the inevitable season's greeting embossed on the card: Find your grail.

Monty Python's Spamalot, book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle. Directed by Mike Nichols. Musical direction, Ben Whiteley; lighting, Hugh Vanstone. With James Beaman, Ben Davis, Jeff Dumas, Christopher Gurr, Robert Petkoff and Christopher Sutton. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Jan. 6 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.


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