Low-budget Monty Python anarchy is defiantly consigned to the trashcan of its impoverished British past, leaving spectacularly self-conscious and expensive Broadway pastiche newly ablaze in its medieval wake in the highly accessible and very enjoyable new musical “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” This show has sufficient laughs and enough genuinely inspired theatrical silliness to ensure boffo Broadway returns and, no doubt, a long Vegas retirement. Given the power of the Python brand, it could well be as lucrative as “The Producers,” a show whose playbook has been very, very closely studied here — right down to the Chicago tryout, and the gags about gays and the Jews who run Broadway.
In essence, “Spamalot” currently is a very funny, very clever, very pumped up, occasionally messy $11 million version of “Forbidden Broadway” with a medieval-Python theme. No less. No more. So if they want Gotham critical praise to go with their box office receipts, director Mike Nichols and writer Eric Idle had better start thinking about prodding their generally coasting leads with one of their silly medieval pikes. They might also add some post-facto bite to all the daffy production numbers with their endlessly circling cycle of self-referential gags.
At the Chi tryout, at least, the movie’s harder, rougher edges aren’t sufficiently in evidence: The sensibility is as soft and bouncy as an aging Python addict’s middle-aged stomach. That’s the show’s main problem.
A bit more of a sense of authentic Python angst should and could be recovered — especially if this show ever wants to dip its toe into London waters, where the Broadwayfication of Python will take a bit of swallowing from local punters and crix.
Happily for investors, the Python brand makes it safe for suburban American men to come to a musical. But stylistically, a happy mid-Atlantic medium is what’s required here. And it needs to be in place before the New York opening in March.
The show includes — or maybe that should be quotes — many of the “Grail” movie’s greatest hits (“Do coconuts migrate?” That sort of thing). But it also adds new characters, like Sara Ramirez’s Lady of the Lake. Some movie dialogue appears verbatim, while other major scenes are deleted. Most of the fresh material is about spoofing Broadway iconography. (Can David Hyde Pierce’s Sir Robin realize his song-and-dance dream?) One-liners are blown out: There’s a huge opening number set in Finland, simply because someone mishears England.
That’s the kind of stuff you’re getting. And among Chi theatergoers at least, mouths are drooling and wallets are open.
In all probability, “Spamalot” is getting in just under the wire before Broadway starts to tire of the new meta-musicals with their gags about musicals on the Great White Way. Thanks to its smarts, “Spamalot” will get away with its decision to turn the quest for the grail into King Arthur and his knight’s desire to get themselves a Broadway berth. But the next time a character on a stage starts asking the audience — as does the Lady of the Lake in a second-act parody ballad — why his or her part has gotten so small, people might start to wonder if Broadway musicals need to get over themselves all over again.
Either way, “Spamalot” is full of belly laughs, which is the main order of business here. John Du Prez and Idle’s faux-Broadway score is better than most people will expect and there are at least three genuine showstoppers — “The Song That Goes Like This” (a fabulous fake Wildhorn-style ballad), “Find Your Grail” and the Mel Brooks-ian “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway.” Idle’s lyrics are endlessly witty. And Pythonheads get to see the Black Knight hacked up, live and in person.
The leads show varying degrees of comfort with the material. Hyde Pierce floats through the first act but warms up in the second, where he has a big song-and-dance, Tony-friendly number. Hank Azaria switches back and forth twixt comic brilliance and a dark fog. And Tim Curry, who has the advantage when it comes to the droll Brit sensibility, mainly barrels through the show in full camp mode. None of them is yet functioning at full throttle. In fact, it’s the second-tier players who root and sustain the show — Ramirez (a knockout, when she’s not overplaying), Christopher Sieber and Michael McGrath.
Among the stuff that needs to go, fast, is a lousy and perplexing act-one close that tries and fails to riff on the cow gag at the French castle from the movie. John Cleese’s recorded turn as God could not be more predictable or less funny. And the opening is far too slow, with the leads looking all at sea and the point of the show woefully not in evidence.
But once in its groove, the show ripples along in high style. Most of the physical gags are sensational. And there’s a knockout turn from McGrath as the pansy Patsy, which rightly dominates the second act.
Toughen it up, tighten it up and free a trio of leads clearly terrified of the ghosts of Python past, and it’ll be a big, stinking hit. Not everyone will get it. But they won’t be showing up at the theater anyway; they won’t be able to get tickets.