Fort Worth — The comedy gods don’t just smile on the new and shiny: the first-time standup routine, the up-to-the-nanosecond political zinger. Nope, all evidence points to them having a big ol’ soft spot for the skits and sketches we know by heart, the puns we see coming, the jokes that start a wave of giggles before the first words are spoken.
That kind of comedy is the goofy glory of Monty Python’s Spamalot, Casa Mañana’s silly and slightly slap-happy season-ending production. There can’t be too many in the audience who don’t know what’s coming: “Your father was a hamster….Skip a bit, brother….That rabbit has a mean streak a mile wide!” On opening night, an audience filled with generations of passionate Python-ites (Python-ettes?) nudge-nudged seatmates as favorite bits approached, and kept up a low hum of lines murmured along with the actors. Oh, yeah, we know this stuff.
Spamalot is fun for first-timers, of course, but oh so much funnier if you have its layered pop-culture history in your head, from the 1969-1974 British TV hit Monty Python’s Flying Circus (first broadcast in the U.S. by our own PBS station, KERA/Channel 13!) to the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail—the 2005 Tony-winning Spamalot being “lovingly ripped off” from both. The Python group’s Eric Idle wrote book and lyrics for the show, and collaborated with composer John Du Prez (an Oxford don/prof in his other life) for most of the music. New York-based actor and director Hunter Foster (aka Sutton’s older brother) skillfully blends a cast that’s equal parts New York and Texas, and tweaks the show with updated political and cultural jabs—plus some local references to the TCU team, our unofficial state song, and the great Dome of Casa Mañana itself.
Broadway veteran Jeff McCarthy (Urinetown, with Foster; Chicago) has a gorgeously plummy voice and gleaming Chamber of Commerce smile as the unflappably self-confident King Arthur. Sure, Arthur’s “horse” is a pair of clacking coconut shells wielded by helpful servant Patsy (eye-rolling Robb Sapp, equal parts exasperation and well, more exasperation). And his claim to be King of the Britons rests on believing that “some watery tart” (impressive Julia Murney, who played Wicked’s Elphaba on Broadway, as the Lady of the Lake) gave him a magic sword. Never mind all that. King Arthur has a very round table—and he needs some knights.
In short order, he collects a sulky socialist peasant (Christopher J. Deaton) who is changed by the Lady into the fabulous, Fabian-haired Sir Galahad; the not-so-Brave Sir Robin (John Scherer); the dim but feisty Sir Lancelot (Mike DiSalvo); and the wobbly-moustached Sir Bedevere (James Chandler). Framing the story is a young Historian (John Garry) who earnestly tries to clear up all the medieval muddles onstage—with scant success.
As usual, many of the main actors play double and triple roles. Scherer is a stitch as a castle Guard endlessly discussing the coconut-carrying capacity of the swallow (instead of letting Arthur in the door). DiSalvo is vocally and physically perfect as the French Taunter, another annoying guard on the battlements who “farts in the general direction” of the Brits. Deaton plays the “just a scratch” Black Knight, but is vein-burstingly funny as Prince Herbert’s father, growing a bit tired of his boy’s falsetto song stylings and frilly curtains. Chandler channels the old Python series’ British housewives (shriek-y voice and all) as Galahad’s radical peasant mum; and Garry is unfailingly cheery in all his “other” roles: as “not dead Fred” avoiding the plague wagon, Sir Robin’s smiling, doom-predicting minstrel…and of course, Prince Herbert, that lonely boy who finally finds a Him to love.
Murney’s rich voice puts across the Lady’s campy song numbers—most of them parodies of Broadway usuals (including “The Song That Goes Like This,” a wailing and generic love duet). Her Liza and Cher impressions make us smile. But her second-act number “Whatever Happened to My Part?” is just a bit too true: the Lady of the Lake spends most of the show offstage. A pity, that, as she glams up every scene “the boys” let her have.
Music director James Cunningham (most recently at Casa for Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story) leads a lively orchestra that never overwhelms the singers. Cunningham, in fact, becomes part of the plot, taking it on the chin as the Lady of the Lake blames him for some of her troubles getting stage time.
This is an especially eye-catching production, with a Medieval-to-Vegas variety of costumes from Tim Hatley, wigs from Catherine Petty-Rogers, and scenic design by Adam Koch, realized by technical director A.J. Kellison and shop. Chunky battlements frame the stage, with stone and forest rendered in saturated tones of blue and green. Overhead, hung from the Casa rafters, are adorably Python-esque cutout clouds—certain to produce a giant foot descending from the heavens at some point, right?
A dozen local actors make up the great ensemble, who from one moment to the next are head-slapping penitent monks, Vegas showstoppers (special kudos to Monique Abry and Alyssa Gardner), Finnish fish-slappers or plague victims. Jeremy Dumont’s athletic choreography keeps the show moving, and his tap routines (coconuts clacking!) are a joy.
Spamalot? Why not? Even if you know every line, who could get tired of that snarky French dude—or of watching two guys “dismount” from their invisible horses? Snort.
Play it again, Spam.