Michael L. Quintos
Definitely one of this current millennium's funniest stage shows, the world-famous Hollywood Bowl certainly chose wisely in its decision to stage the hit musical comedy Monty Python's SPAMALOT as this year's all-star annual summer stage musical spectacular, which was welcomed with plenty of sustained, hearty laughter and a well-deserved standing ovation during its opening night performance on Friday evening, July 31st. The nearly 18,000-seat venue's truncated, yet still enormously entertaining re-staging of the 2005 Tony Award winner for Best Musical continues with two additional weekend performances, August 1-2.
Overflowing with super-silly situations, clever, amusing songs, and over-the-top high jinks synonymous with the cheeky, often bawdy humor of the Monty Python oeuvre, SPAMALOT is actually a perfect piece to reconfigure for the massive outdoor stage of the Hollywood Bowl. Besides its genuinely appealing, age-transcending humor—from high-brow to low-brow to the seemingly nonsensical—the show offers lots of fun visual gags and fourth-wall-breaking clowning that audiences in this open-air, booze-filled venue can revel in without fear of missing out on pesky, important plot details or nuanced dramatic connotations other more serious shows may demand. Nope, SPAMALOT, more than anything, is all about showcasing wit and whimsy, both spoken and sung.
They first achieved this, of course, by loosely adapting their cult 1975 film classic Monty Python & The Holy Grail and then rejigger it into a great big Broadway musical that also playfully skewers the legend of King Arthur, the Exalibur-wielding monarch of the (then) plague-stricken Britain, who decides to leave behind his Vegas-style kingdom of Camelot to set out on a deity-sanctioned quest to find the so-called "holy vessel"—aided by some of the brave, just recently-recruited Knights that sit around his infamous Round Table. Along their journey, they encounter one eccentric character after another, including the gorgeous Lady Of The Lake, a rude, insult-spewing Frenchman, the Knights That Say "Ni," and even an in-the-closet prince trapped in a tower, waiting for imminent rescue. The whole darn thing—which zips from one hilarious scene to the next with short attention span-friendly speed and self-aware meta qualities—is, simply put, just downright funny.
The Hollywood Bowl's staged concert version—admirably directed by BT McNicholl with choreography re-staged by Scott Taylor and Billy Sprague Jr. from Casey Nicholaw's original work, and features musical director Todd Ellison conducting the terrific on-stage orchestra—continues this happily amusing tradition even in this scaled-up, extra-amplified iteration. In fact, I must say that I haven't laughed out loud seeing a production of SPAMALOT this much—even despite seeing such an edited-for-length version!
Using the Bowl's fancy, state-of-the-art colorful projections, dazzling costumes, large-scaled sets, and just the sheer energy feedback emanating from this appreciative audience, this SPAMALOT is certainly a non-stop laugh riot that urges everyone to "always look for the bright side of life."
A show like this, naturally calls for a few timely updates to its fourth wall-breaking brand of humor, so it totally made sense to have mentions of the California drought, the surrounding Hollywood Hills, Taylor Swift (the newer target for The Lady of the Lake's rage) and an ever-so-awesome new bit that finds the leader of the Knights That Say "Ni" go into a thrilling stream of consciousness that diverts into verses of Bruno Mars' popular hit " Uptown Funk" that had the audience in stitches.
And as expected with these enlarged, often stunt-cast Hollywood Bowl productions, stars from the world of film and television—many of whom aren't usually known for their musical theater proclivities—have been tapped to take on roles in these special, swiftly-put-together productions, singing and dancing and acting alongside many musical theater veterans for Broadway street cred. Luckily, though, SPAMALOT is the kind of show that seems a bit more forgiving when it comes to an actors' singing abilities (when you look at the big picture, this show is more like an interconnected series of comedic sketches with occasional, often funny musical numbers—so being funny is more important). Past Bowl productions I've watched (and reviewed) over the years have certainly revealed some wonderful surprises, and this year's offering is no exception.
Leading this merry band of misfits is TV and film funnyman Craig Robinson (The Office, Hot Tub Time Machine) who provides a fresh if slightly too-straight-man version of King Arthur, unselfishly allowing his castmates to shine much more comedically around him (but don't get me wrong, the guy is still pretty likable here, but surprisingly, he seems a tad nervous). Trailing along right behind him (while clacking hollow coconuts for horse gallops, of course) is the adorable Warwick Davis (Willow, Harry Potter films, Return of the Jedi) who winningly returns to the same role of Patsy, King Arthur's oft-ignored henchman that he also played in the West End/London. Aside from being an endearing actor with brilliant comic timing and facial expressions right from the start, wait until you see this little guy dance!
Joining them as the handsome, post-makeover Sir Galahad is TV/Film star Christian Slater (currently in USA's superb series Mr. Robot) who makes up for his shaky vocals with his extremely funny turns not only as the aforementioned Galahad but also in additional roles as the Black Knight and Prince Herbert's father. Also providing reliable laughs is Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the not-so-brave, musical theater fanatic Sir Robin (as well as other smaller roles). It's always nice to see this Broadway vet return to his musical theater roots right here in L.A.—and do so with such giddy, palpable enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, Monty Python genius Eric Idle—who wrote SPAMALOT's book and lyrics and co-wrote the music with John Du Prez—makes a surprise cameo right at the top of the show as the Narrator. Later, another Monty Python vet, Michael Palin, appears via hilariously-shot video as God Himself (loved his inclusion here, but, admittedly, I did miss seeing a giant foot come straight down from the rafters).
But, as you may have guessed, the show's more theater-based ensemble members prove they are SPAMALOT's designated MVPs. As the Lady of the Lake, the sexy, spunky and spectacular Merle Dandridge (a veteran of the role) absolutely kills both of her solos, adding some much-needed divaliciousness to this male-dominated musical. It's great hearing her do this role once more because I will literally listen to her sing anything.
Another SPAMALOT vet, Tom Deckman, continually steals the show with every side-splittingly funny appearance—first as "Not Dead" Fred, then later as one of Sir Robin's truth-singing Minstrels, and finally as the love-starved, curtain-loving Prince Herbert. Theater powerhouse and all-around excellent character actor Kevin Chamberlin is put to good use in several roles in SPAMALOT as well, particularly as Dennis Galahad's inquisitive mom. And finally, Rick Holmes (yet another well-cast SPAMALOT returnee) is hands-down impressive playing not only the conflicted Sir Lancelot but also brings down the house with his turns as the bunny-warning Tim the Enchanter, the head Knight of Ni, and as the foul-mouthed French Taunter who follows his over-emphasized insults against our heroes with a cow tossing (what else?!)
Overall, while I certainly still recommend you seek out SPAMALOT in its full, uncut format at some point in your life (that is, if you had not seen the show already), the Hollywood Bowl's incredibly enjoyable concert production is nonetheless an unabashedly laugh-out-loud, superior undertaking on its own, helped tremendously by this comically-gifted cast performing material that is some of the funniest stuff put on a stage. Despite a few minor technical gaffes and the amusingly liquid use of British Accents (they go in and out quite frequently and quite randomly), the seemingly endless string of laughs I experienced alongside nearly 18,000 other attendees while watching this silly show on Opening Night is a reminder of the joy a well-done musical comedy can ignite. This certainly ranks among some of the best summer musicals this historic venue has produced in the past few years.
Oh... and an additional bonus? The Hollywood Bowl's newly renovated boxes (and the comfy new seats in them) makes the whole experience even more worth doing.
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Photos from the Opening Night Performance of MONTY PYTHON'S SPAMALOT at the Hollywood Bowl by © Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging.
Performances of MONTY PYTHON'S SPAMALOT, featuring book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle, direction by BT McNicholl, choreography adaptation/re-staging by Scott Taylor and Billy Sprague Jr., and musical direction by Todd Ellison continue at the Hollywood Bowl for two additional performances on Saturday, August 1 (at 8:00 pm) and Sunday, August 2 (at 7:30 pm).
Tickets are still available, and may be purchased online at HollywoodBowl.com, by phone at 323-850-2000, in person at the Hollywood Bowl box office, or by calling Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000, and at all Ticketmaster outlets