The low-cuisine institution known as Spam is a processed lunch meat whose ingredients are ground to a medium-coarse texture, with spices added to boost the flavor. Not exactly a dish for subtle palates, but consumers have kept cans flying off shelves for decades. Taking a beloved 1975 comedy that causes armies of middle-age Pythonheads to regress into tittering teenage nerdhood, and stirring in an ample helping of self-reflexive Broadway musical silliness that owes much to “The Producers,” “Monty Python’s Spamalot” adopts a similarly unrefined recipe. The show is an even more episodic patchwork than the British comedy team’s movies, but the irreverent Arthurian romp’s brash, lunatic spirit is impossible to ignore and almost as hard to resist.
The hunger in the Broadway community to embrace a monster hit is palpable. And, as evidenced by the rivers of media ink, $16 million-plus in advance ticket sales and the lines snaking around the block at the Shubert Theater in hope of cancellations, “Spamalot” will fill that need. Fact that the show is more memorable on a scene-by-scene basis than as a somewhat forced package will matter little.
With the expert manipulation of director Mike Nichols and a cast riding high — a little too high at times — on infectious enjoyment, Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle and co-composer John Du Prez deliver a rowdy entertainment that remains sufficiently faithful to its source, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” to satisfy nostalgic fans, while broadening the humor to cast a wider net among musical theatergoers. Indeed, the legions of Python obsessives on the first press night were spewing laughter in anticipation of classic scenes or key dialogue from the movie. It’s not hard to imagine an imminent future in which auds will be shouting along with vocal wizard Hank Azaria’s French-accented taunt, “I wave my private parts at your aunties, you tiny-brained wipers of other people’s bottoms.”
What made the Python crew’s humor so distinctive was its singular balance of the asinine with the academic, the political with the profane, plus the incomparable comic aplomb of its members, the only one of whom involved here — aside from Idle — is John Cleese in a routine drive-by as the (recorded) voice of God.
Try as they might, talented leads Azaria, Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce and Christopher Sieber are simply no match for the performers indelibly associated with this material. And with the exception of Curry, whose droll pomposity as King Arthur represents the closest approximation to the original, there’s a much more expansive brand of mugging going on here.
Some of the simpler gags, like Arthur’s lackey Patsy (Michael McGrath) clapping coconuts to evoke the sound of nonexistent horses’ hooves, work just fine. But dialogue lifted almost verbatim, such as the opening discussion of the air-speed velocity of a swallow, feels too much like imitation delivered as comic discovery.
With help from Elaine J. McCarthy’s animated projections and designer Tim Hatley’s medieval-funhouse sets and costumes (with Terry Gilliam-style clouds hanging overhead), the show successfully appropriates the look of the Pythons’ vintage TV skein and films, albeit with significant departures into glitzy, Vegas extravaganza. While they fail to find a worthy stage translation of the Black Knight’s dismemberment, the creatives have developed workable formulas to replicate other seminal moments such as the catapulting cows and the vicious, cave-guarding killer bunny.
Like the film, Idle’s book here is a string of comic sketches posing as an Arthurian epic, and the tuner works best when it re-imagines those scenes. Instilling fluidity or momentum into the slapdash chronicle of Arthur’s recruitment of the knights and their quest for the Holy Grail was never going to be a prime concern.
The “Bring out your dead” scene is among the best expansions, with catchy tune “I’m Not Dead Yet” smoothly serving to enlist the prissy Sir Robin (Pierce) and brave Lancelot (Azaria) into Arthur’s band of knights. Idle and Du Prez here display a better grasp of the conventions of advancing a narrative through song than might be expected. Likewise Lancelot’s high-casualty rescue in act two of the fey Prince Herbert from marriage is a comic high point, not least thanks to Christian Borle’s effetely antic perf.
While the Python movies often stepped outside the narrative to wink at the audience, the show does so more insistently. After both “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Spamalot,” which follow the lead of “The Producers” in kicking down the fourth wall with unrelenting frequency, it might be time to call a moratorium on Broadway musicals pastiching themselves with knowing smugness. This strain gets stretched to exasperation when the Knights who say “Ni” modify their original request for a shrubbery to demand consecration of Arthur and his men in a Broadway show.
The introduction of the Lady of the Lake as a significant player allows for both a legitimate distaff character — women mostly are relegated to squawking drag appearances in the Python canon — and for an invigorating comic turn by Sara Ramirez, who hilariously takes on Cher, Liza Minnelli, Lola Falana, Joey Heatherton and just about every other brassy Vegas headliner as she shimmies into showgirl-populated Camelot. The Lady also scores when cheerleading through “Come With Me,” belting out the overblown gospel thunder of “Follow Your Grail” and ascending with Galahad (Sieber) into the soaring romantic mush of Frank Wildhorn/Andrew Lloyd Webber territory in “The Song That Goes Like This,” all of them distinct first-act peaks.
But Idle tends to sledgehammer a good gag to death, and latter song’s two reprises succumb to overkill. Ditto the Lady’s second-act song “The Diva’s Lament,” a furious protest at the diminishment of her role that stops the show dead in its tracks, tarnishing Ramirez’s otherwise revelatory turn.
Each of the key thesps grabs the spotlight at some point, making this a refreshingly democratic ensemble show. After coasting through the first act with too little to do in his customary deadpan, Pierce comes alive in the splashy “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” in which he gives vent to Robin’s song-and-dance ambitions and expounds on the necessity of Jews to make it on Broadway.
Azaria’s big song, “His Name Is Lancelot,” is a campy Peter Allen nightmare and feels like a strained derivation from “The Producers.” But the vocally dexterous actor gets to shine in a number of character bits, notably as the Scots-brogued Tim the Enchanter and the shrill chief Knight of Ni.
In addition to Ramirez and Borle, McGrath impresses among the supporting cast as Arthur’s sidekick, his thankless role wryly underlined in the king’s “I’m All Alone.”
While the laughs are by no means as steady or as hearty as they were first time around in “The Producers,” or even in the far more musically robust “Hairspray,” “Spamalot” has a boisterous energy that appropriately evokes the idea of naughty schoolboys running riot with a budget. That zestiness is enhanced by Casey Nicholaw’s bouncy choreography, but it’s driven primarily by Nichols’ peerless skill in pulling together a show that’s really just an unruly bundle of engaging bits and pieces, and giving it theatrical body.