Review: The Return of 'Spamalot'

Eloise Baxter-Moss

  • OnStage North Carolina Critic

Monty Python’s Spamalot was last presented in Wilmington, NC in 2013, courtesy of Cape Fear Theatre Arts, so it may be a tad too soon for a return engagement.  But here it is nonetheless, this time presented by Opera House Theatre Company.  While the production hits all of its marks, under the capable direction of Jason Aycock, there is no mistaking the whiff of mildew about both the production and the musical itself.

The original production opened on Broadway in 2005, directed, perhaps unexpectedly, by the legendary Mike Nichols.  Or perhaps Nichol’s direction shouldn’t have been unexpected, considering his stellar career in sketch comedy with Elaine May.  Based upon the wildly irreverent and silly sketch comedy developed by the British comedy troupe, specifically their 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Tony Award-winning musical somewhat strains to make the old gags land.  

This production works overtime to put those gags over.  The book and lyrics by Eric Idle, an original Python, and music by John Du Prez and Mr. Idle get the job done, but that job was mostly done when the television show expired in 1974.  The appropriately rudimentary plot finds King Arthur traveling medieval England recruiting Knights of the Round Table to join him in his quest for the Holy Grail.  It goes without saying that comic high jinx ensues.  One of the most amusing happens at the top of the show when the Narrator (full-throated George Domby, splendid in five roles) is giving the audience a brief education on medieval England.  A Finnish village suddenly appears and the Narrator must explain to the braided, frolicking villagers that he was speaking of Eng-land, not Fin-land. 

I couldn’t help noticing that uninitiated younger audience members were not slapping their thighs at the mere mention of “Ni,” while greeting the killer-rabbit, bring-out-your-dead and taunting Frenchman scenes with polite chuckles.  Those of a certain age, however, were squealing with delight in anticipation of what they knew was lying just around the corner.  

Mr. Aycock and the game cast can’t be blamed for not quite being able to blow the dust off of the material.  The musical’s best known song, the cheerful “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,” was interpolated from the troupe’s 1979 film, Life of Brian, in which its subversive context of being sung by a chorus of men nailed to crucifixes made it something more than a would-be Sesame Street ditty.  That example is representative of the material in general which, understandably, has lost some of its edge during the more than four decades since the then-daring troupe was conceived.  It’s somewhat telling that one of the biggest laughs of the evening is awarded an incongruous bale of hay being pulled across the stage when someone yells, “Hey!”  But in all fairness, it may be exactly that vaudeville style of presentational comedy that has always afforded the material its charms.

In a gender bending turn, Heather Setzler, a dry and wry comedienne, plays King Arthur’s world-weary sidekick, Patsy, whose clapping of coconut shells to impersonate his master’s horse (a staple of the original series) somewhat wears out its welcome after the umpteenth time it’s employed.  The young and fair Annie Tracy Marsh, as the Lady of the Lake, socks her songs over with a raise the roof, growling belt including “The Diva’s Lament,” while not quite inhabiting the comic center of the diva herself.  The production hits its comic stride halfway into Act Two when Sam Robison’s sweet Sir Lancelot courts the effete Prince Herbert, Mr. Domby again and in excellent voice on the hilarious “Where Are You?”  Suddenly a burst of welcome helium hits the stage, lifting everything around it.  (Mr. Robison proves invaluable in several other roles as well.)  Everyone in the cast seems to be having a high time of it throughout, which goes a considerable way toward putting the production across.

The serviceable score is well served by music director Lorene Walsh and her ten-piece band, assisted by sound designer John Deveaux’s dependable contribution.  Costume designer Juli Harvey has done her customary fine and detailed work, largely modeled upon the original designs by Tim Hatley.  While the scenic design by Terry Collins is nothing special, often offering nothing more than a bare stage, it gets us there and back, accompanied by Greg Gelder’s unremarkable light design, which I wish was more playful.  The production design overall is a bit cheesy but that may have been part of Mr. Aycock’s concept.

While Spamalot may not be a musical for the ages, OHTC’s production certainly qualifies as an agreeable night of entertainment, especially if acres of somewhat puerile silliness is your cup of tea.