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BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE: ‘Spamalot’ is a side-splitting good time

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“Spamalot,” produced by Opera House Theatre Company at Thalian Hall, is the perfect antidote to the summer doldrums. That statement should be obvious; I mean, how can you not love Monty Python, King Arthur and musical theatre all rolled into one zany show?   Throw in Jason Aycock as director and it’s a night of side-splitting fun entertainment. That is evident from the moment Aycock appears for the curtain speech in a bowler hat and dark suit, paying homage to John Cleese’s “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” (from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”). No matter what your day was like before, that moment proves it’s about to get much funnier.

Just to play catch-up: In 1969 “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” a sketch comedy show, aired on the BBC. Nothing was ever going to be quite that same after that. Monty Python, composed of Eric Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones would go on to produce  multiple live albums, concerts, TV specials, tours, and feature films.  Among them: the much-beloved “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), an incredibly bizarre and ridiculous adaptation of the King Arthur legend.

In 2005, under the direction of Mike Nichols, “Spamalot,” a musical theatre adaptation (book and lyrics by Eric Idle), opened on Broadway and was an immediate hit. What the stage adaptation does so well is to include the jokes and bits that hardcore Python fans (like myself) want to see, with new material that nods to the new form. So we still begin (after a brief detour to Finland) with King Arthur (Robin Dale Robertson) and his trusty side kick, Patsy (Heather Setzler). They “trot” about to look for knights to join Arthur’s court at Camelot. “Trotting” is of course in quotes because the only horse Arthur has is the two halves of coconuts that Patsy clicks together to make horse sounds. The role of Arthur in the film was played by Graham Chapman as a rather imperious, easily frustrated and mildly confused monarch. Tim Curry’s rendition in the original Broadway cast was as a big, loud, smiling straight man to every joke. (Seriously, he was simultaneously dead pan and amused it was bizarre.) Robertson goes a different direction, while still embracing the bafflement that is essential to the role.

His Patsy (Gilliam in the movie, Michael McGrath on Broadway) also doesn’t try to recreate Gilliam. To begin with, just when I think I understand the depth of Heather Setzler’s talent and ability, she manages to surprise me again. Covered in dirt, bearing a heavy pack and playing second fiddle to a man who is the butt of every joke, Setzler wrings unexpected laughs from the role and still doesn’t upstage her king. For “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” it is no surprise she sells the tune with great dancing and beautiful singing, but it is her desperate plea to be noticed in “I’m All Alone”—the lament of King Arthur that he is abandoned in the world (which of course he is not,  but we all feel that way when we get down in the dumps).  She really shines and hits the physical comedy perfectly in synch with the witty writing and Robertson’s performance.

Of course every Python fan has a favorite character, and somehow Sam Robison managed to get cast not only as Lancelot, but also Tim the Enchanter, the Knight who Says Ni! and the French Taunter.  Aside from Lancelot (who is very different in the stage show from Cleese’s role in the film), the  other three roles all come with very specific expectations from audience members. Robison does not disappoint: He hits the parody square (it is just hard for him not to laugh at the same time!). Of course, that’s not a problem just for Robison. Much of the cast are clearly Python fans.

Christopher Rickert plays the Black Knight as a rather confused man who fails to understand that, after losing all his limbs, he has clearly lost the battle, as well as Prince Herbert’s Father at Swamp Castle and Sir Denis Galahad, a young would-be anarchist-turned-knight. His role as Denis offers wonderful insight into the mythical and mystical verses modern thought with the line, “Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”

The stage adaptation had significant issues to address in juxtaposition to the film. The first problem: There is no female lead in the movie. Python was an all-male group (given to drag), but there really wasn’t a real female lead. The Lady of the Lake (Annie Tracy Marsh) is basically the token principal female role. Her appearance to Sir Denis with the song “The Lady of the Lake,” sung with the able help of her Laker Girls (Tammy Sue Daniels, Beth Swindell, Avery Hoederman, Kendall Walker, Sophie Whisnant, and Hunter Wyatt) owes a lot of debt to “Hey Mickey!” with its cheerleading theme. But the duet between Rickert and Marsh for “The Song That Goes Like This” is not to be missed. It is a glorious send-up of Andrew Lloyd Webber (the set pieces for the Broadway show were a direct steal from “Phantom of the Opera”). These two talented signers manage to really enjoy the song and milk the humor while hitting some extraordinary notes.

The supporting cast play more roles than most people can fathom, including Greg Beddingfield, Chris Connor, Maggie Millerm Kire’Ann Stenson (who can carry a drum almost as big as she is!), Tammy Sue Daniels, Anna Gamel, Beau Mumford, Qaadir Hicks, Blaine Allen Mower, Maroln Ramos, Hunter Wyatt, Sarah Parsons, Beth Swindell, Kendal Walker, and Sophie Whisnant. They play villagers, knights, minstrels, and more. All expected Python homages from the principal characters aside, without the ensemble completely on point, the show would collapse.

If there is one drawback, it is the scarcity and paucity of actual set pieces. Honestly, the performances are so great, one hardly notices. Part of what made Python so successful was just the sheer beauty of watching those six men preform together. This cast taps into that energy and brings it to the stage. It is a night of exceptional fun and laughter.

June 17-19 and 24-26, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $24-$32
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
(910) 632-2285

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