By Stanford Friedman
The pleasures of the Broadway revival of Spamalot are three in number. Three shall be the number thou shall count and the number of the counting shalt be three. Two shalt thou not count, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Number One: Recitations of vintage routines culled verbatim from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Two: Occasional extrapolations of some of those routines resulting in new found laughs from 48-year-old material. Three: Bouncy-bouncy song and dance numbers that, more often than not, shore up rather than intrude upon the comic material. Three and a half: Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer. OK, fine then, four: A second act that strays from its source material and heads toward Forbidden Broadway territory, feeling all the livelier for it.
The plot of Spamalot? There’s not a lot. King Arthur (James Monroe Iglehart) travels around 932 A.D. England in search of knights for his “very very round table.” He recruits Sir Robin (Michael Urie), Lancelot (Taran Killam), Belvedere (Jimmy Smagula) and Galahad (Nik Walker). We learn Arthur’s backstory with help from a historian (Ethan Slater) and witness his receiving of the sword Excalibur from The Lady of the Lake (Kritzer). Once the knnnniggets, er I mean the knights, are amassed, God shows up (in cartoon form, voiced by Steve Martin) and instructs them to seek the Holy Grail. Hijinks, low comedy and the occasional tap dance ensue until finally the show turns inside out in a burst of self-referential proclamations, a kiss and an audience sing-along. Not the most logical of finales, but still better than the abrupt ending of Holy Grail, the film.
Act One highlights include classic Pythonian treats like the debate over whether a swallow can fly while carrying a coconut (“It’s a simple question of weight ratios!”) and politically acute observations from the underclass, as when Arthur’s right to be king comes into question: “Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” There’s a rousing Vegas-style ensemble number (“Knights of the Round Table”), a showcase for Kritzer’s formidable pipes (“Find Your Grail”) and a sublimely silly end of act sequence involving numerous Frenchmen and a flying cow.
Spamalot is one of the few musicals with dialog that is better known than its score, the exception being the Act Two opener, that faux inspirational ditty borrowed from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” It receives a jaunty mounting here. And while the first act has its way with the French, the second act takes hilarious and unprovoked aim at the Jews. There’s an extended Fiddler on the Roof fever dream complete with the show’s famous bottle dance, here with grails balanced on the performers’ heads. Plus there’s the only slightly offensive patter song, “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” featuring lyrics like “There’s a very small percentile/who enjoys a dancing gentile…Never mind your swordplay/You just don’t succeed on Broadway/If you don’t have any Jews.”
If this production, under the direction of Josh Rhodes, has a fault, it’s that the staging can sometimes be too tongue in cheek for its own good. It is hard to embrace the follow-your-dream message of “Find Your Grail” when the song is seeded with laughs. And when Kritzer stops the show with “Diva’s Lament,” a soaring “Rose’s Turn” of a number about her character not receiving enough stage time, the audience wants to rise to their feet, but her gag of asking for more and more applause undercuts our intention to provide it.
The rest of the cast is also in fine form. Iglehart’s Arthur is majestic yet lovable while Urie’s Sir Robin is a cowardly delight. And Saturday Night Live alum Killam compensates for his limited stage experience with a clear love and foreknowledge of the material that lets him improv with glee as both the taunting French guard and the shrubbery-loving knight who says “Ni.”
Spamalot – Book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle.
Directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes.
WITH: Christopher Fitzgerald (Patsy, Mayor, Guard), James Monroe Iglehart (King Arthur), Taran Killam (Sir Lancelot and others), Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer (The Lady of the Lake), Ethan Slater (Historian, Prince Albert and others), Jimmy Smagula (Dennis’s Mother, Belvedere and others), Michael Urie (Sir Robin and others), Nik Walker (Sir Dennis Galahad and others) and David Josefsberg, Graham Stevens, Daniel Beeman, Maria Briggs, Gabriella Enriquez, Michael Fatica, Denis Lambert, Shina Ann Morris, Kaylee Olson, Kristin Piro, Drew Redington, Tyler Roberts, Anju Cloud, Darrell T. Joe, Lily Kaufmann, and Charlie Sutton.
Scenic and Projection Design by Paul Tate dePoo III, Costume Design by Jen Caprio, Lighting Design by Cory Pattak, Sound Design by Kai Harada and Haley Parcher, Hair and Wig Design by Tom Watson. The St. James Theater, 246 West 44th St., 888-985-9421, https://spamalotthemusical.com. Through April 28. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.