The road from New York to London is paved with corpses. London critics have a habit of looking at the West End openings of Broadway triumphs and pronouncing them DOA. Yet if the initial, fairly ecstatic British reviews are anything to go by, “Spamalot” looks set to buck the trend, possibly because the Monty Python phenomenon — a sharp-flavored mix of satire, sarcasm and silliness — remains so abidingly British. Yet for all its buoyancy somewhere on the journey across the Atlantic, some of the air has escaped from the balloon.
If there have been tweaks to Tim Hatley’s design, it’s a case of invisible mending rather than wholesale reinvention. And although the Lady of the Lake — a flabbergasting, career-best Hannah Waddingham — may interpolate a reference to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s star-search TV program “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” into her thrillingly over-the-top vocalizing, in almost all other respects the script remains the same. Which is where the problem may lie.
In New York, the initial Monty Python plot was well-loved, but ditching it late to switch into a cheeky celebration of all things musical theater made cheerfully idiotic sense.
In London, that gear change feels decidedly awkward, as if the creators, having lost faith in the base material, suddenly leap from the British idiom into American.
Writer Eric Idle tries to disguise the shift by switching lines about Broadway to ones about the West End. But that sets up its own problems. In New York, where Jews do make up an immensely visible percentage of both the industry and the audience, singing, “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews” is riotously funny. In London, where the Jewish population is much smaller, the number (albeit with Broadway changed to “showbiz”) feels slightly irrelevant. And while most New York theatergoers have come across the lyric’s Yiddish words like “goyim,” Londoners have not.
Tim Curry beams away as a King Arthur bathed in a pleasing glow of self-satisfaction, contrasted with outbreaks of exasperation at absurd events unfolding around him. Yet his familiarity with the role has bred a little too much contentment. Charming though he is, his lines often glide by with little delineation. As Simon Russell Beale showed when he took over on Broadway — as he will do again next spring in London — there’s far more edge to the role than Curry now brings to it.
The only other holdover is Christopher Sieber’s Sir Dennis Galahad, who continues his nicely pompous line in dumb blond ambition.
For its London incarnation, the production team has elected not to emulate the original casting, which favored star names. The results are mixed. Waddingham steals the show with her statuesque presence, comic timing and stupendous vocal range, and Tom Goodman-Hill is an excellently droll Lancelot, his gradual coming-out beautifully laced with suspicion. Elsewhere, however, several perfs border on the anodyne. As bold, brave Sir Robin, Robert Hands is amiable but directionless.
That’s a criticism that can be leveled at Mike Nichols’ staging as a whole, not at its conception but its current execution. The press performance lacked definition.
Not that the audience seemed to mind. The laughter was not at full throttle, but there was enough to keep the comedy more than alive. With its homegrown, built-in fan base of boys who grew up on Python, this boisterous entertainment looks likely to succeed.