To the cry of "bring out your dead," one thing you can't bring out is the touring production of Monty Python's Spamalot that opened at Bass Hall on Tuesday. The show, which opened on Broadway in 2005, has been to the Metroplex before. Thrice, in fact. However, it remains very much alive and as fresh, in both meanings of that word, as ever. Spamalot is the kind of show the Gilbert and Sullivan would write if they were alive today, and holds up as well as the The Pirates of Penzance with multiple viewings. The fact that the audience can recite most of the lines along with the actors matters not a wit.
The Mike Nichols-directed stage production, "lovingly ripped off" from Monty Python's (in the persons of Eric Idle and John Du Prez) bizarrely hilarious movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, clocks in at one corny punchline a minute for two hours. Along the way, they manage to poke fun at the whole concept of a Broadway show, as the actors suddenly realize that they are in one themselves. West Side Story, Company, Fiddler on the Roof, Pippin, Saturday Night Fever, Les Misérables and a host of other Great White Way hits are lampooned. They even take a swipe at the Village People and the over-the-top vocal fireworks found on American Idol.
Idle recycles some bits from other Python movies and shows, such as the Finnish peasants of Moose Village doing their traditional "Fisch Schlapping Dance." He also adds "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from the Python masterpiece, The Life of Brian, although the singers are not crucified in this version. Other send-ups include the expected love song, entitled "The Song That Goes Like This" which doesn't even bother to sing the hackneyed lyrics that such a song usually displays. Of course, there is a bevy of scantily clad chorus girls and production numbers with delusions of grandeur.
As the hapless King Arthur, Arthur Rowan is perfect, stuffed into his gilded tunic and trying to gather what meager royal bearing he can muster. As the versatile Lady of the Lake, Brittany Woodrow makes a terrific diva. Her complaints about being offstage too much and her demand of "where is my big song", in the Diva's Lament, once again pokes another hole in the tattered fourth wall to riotous effect. All of the others in the cast are excellent and faithfully recreate the roles that their illustrious Python predecessors created in the movie. One of the original cast remains, however. Eric Idle himself is (of course) the Voice of God.
Many favorite bits from the movie are there and the laughs at the very first lines show that many loyal fans are present. The Knights Who Say Ni are still looking for a shrubbery, the killer rabbit rips off a head or two, the Black Knight continues to challenge King Arthur even when he is missing all of his extremities, and the king is still oblivious to the fact that he missing a horse and that it is his loyal retainer making the clopping sounds with two coconut halves.
Along the way, they manage to hit as many politically incorrect buttons as they can. There is a song about how you can't put out a Broadway show without Jews. When they ask the only Jew they find why he hasn't spoken up before, he answers, "...this is not something you admit to a heavily armed Christian." The foul-mouthed, flatulent Frenchman spews out his taunts in his "ridiculous French accent" and his final insult is the same as in the movie (no spoiler alert here). The stubbornness of the opposition to gay marriage gets the best joke of the evening. Even God (good-naturedly) takes some lambasting.
The most amazing part is the orchestra, or the lack of one. The orchestra is another mirage. When I went down to take a look at the setup before the show, I saw a young man sitting at an electric keyboard playing Bach, grabbing a little practice time before the show, I suppose. It turned out to be the conductor, Nolan Bonvouloir.
He said that they tour with a brass quartet and two keyboard players, of which he was one. Everything else is sampled, including the percussion. When the music starts, a full symphony orchestra magically appears. Just amazing. In fact, the four live brass players were indistinguishable from the full Mantovani treatment the keyboards supplied. Now, as a musician who has been out of work as much as employed, I find this development to be a little distressing. You cannot help but flash forward, Python-wise, to a day when an aged Jaap van Zweden will walk out on stage and give the downbeat to two keyboard players and a brass quartet.
At least it's good to know that elsewhere, for now at least, the orchestra is not dead yet.