John Cleese told John Hodgman in an interview in the “Unbound” literary series: “People often confuse humor with laughter.” He examples the notion of being around friends who exude joy and good will despite whether or not something funny is actually being said. Humor, however, is a different beast—it takes forethought, education, quick wit, and sometimes, or at least in Cleese’s case, an entourage of other funny people who elevate the jokes. As part of the comedy troupe Monty Python (Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin), Cleese’s silly yet smart and surreal British comedy has enlivened viewers worldwide, especially in movies like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Life of Brian.”
In 2004 Monty Python member Eric Idle launched a Broadway musical based on the Holy Grail. “Spamalot” (the name comes from the lyric, “We eat ham, and jam, and Spam a lot”) opened in 2005 and was directed by Mike Nichols to the success of 14 Tony nominations and three wins, including Best Musical, as well as a Grammy in 2006. The show follows the reign of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table who are on a mission to find the Holy Grail. As they approach a French castle, danger prevails from a Black Knight, as hijinks surround them in the form of a precarious bunny rabbit, flatulent Frenchmen and flashy showgirls—all while Pythonic bits rear their heads, from discussions of coconuts to “I’m not dead yet.”
Opera House Theatre Company will open their 31st season with “Spamalot,” directed by Jason Aycock. It isn’t the first time Aycock has done the show. In fact, he acted as Patsy in the City Stage version three years ago; this time around he is sitting in the director’s chair.
“Being in the show last time was incredibly beneficial,” Aycock tells. “Understanding the flow helped make blocking and choreographing much easier because of the quickness of some of the character changes.”
The leads—all eight of them—play multiple roles, just as the original Monty Python crew. The ensemble, clocking in at 16, fill out the stage for more than two dozen musical numbers. Only one cast member from City Stage’s production will return for Opera House’s run. George Domby will play Historian, Not Dead Fred, French Guard, Minstrel, and Prince Herbert—all roles he calls a dream come true.
“My characters range from the very proper Historian, who quasi-narrates the show, to the meek and effeminate Prince Herbert, who only comes into his own after finding his one true love,” Domby says. “Each character is wonderfully silly in his own way. I’ve always considered myself a big goofball, but I don’t think I truly realized the extent of my goofiness until doing this show. . . . I’ve loved getting the chance to play all five roles that Christian Borle originated on Broadway.”
The intensity of switching personalities onstage is only matched by the execution of quick costume changes. Juli Harvey has been a godsend in her tailoring and creative eye. “We rented the original touring costumes, which were very specifically made, so having that knowledge to pass along to our Juli was pretty helpful, and she built some amazing stuff,” Aycock tells.
Christopher Rickert as Sir Dennis Galahad, Black Knight and Father appreciates the natural blend of childishness and maturity the show’s humor offers. It marries silly with crass in an organic, penetrable way. More so, its light-hearted script alleviates some encumbrance on the actors. “It’s really an opportunity to just go out and have fun without the pressure we put on ourselves at times as performers,” Rickert tells.
Still, “Spamalot” isn’t without a moral message worthy of finding, especially apparent in a few of Rickert’s characters. Self-confidence and tenacity go a long way in life, as it tells audiences. “The Black Knight has taught all of us to always believe in [ourselves,] even when things don’t go as planned,” Rickert says. “Father’s a very head-strong man, with aspirations and dreams. He wants what he thinks is best for his family, and works toward that in a very [“Game of Thrones”] Walder Frey kind of way.”
Characters deliver such sentiments in songs like “Find Your Grail.” It’s one of Rickert’s favorite in the production. “Everyone needs a goal to strive for—the power lies within us,” he explains. “So many people look or wait for outside forces to help them, but it really comes down to each of us having the courage to find our own grail.”
Aycock has chosen to stick to the original character tracks used in the Broadway production. Lorene Walsh is leading eight musicians.
“My favorite song in the show is ‘His Name is Lancelot,’” Domby explains. “I can’t reveal too much, since it will ruin the surprise for those who haven’t seen the musical. But it’s one of those moments when the musical’s creators decided to veer off course from the film plot, and a fantastic secret is revealed. Plus, I’m a big fan of disco and Carmen Miranda.”
Aycock is working to ensure “Spamalot” remains relatable to all: Monty Python followers and newbies. Translating it to stage with the help of his technical crew—set design by Terry Collins, sound by John Deveaux and lighting by Greg Gelder—proves most challenging. “But when all else fails, the laughter from banging two empty halves of coconuts together pretty much ease my worries,” Aycock says.
“Spamalot” opens Wednesday night at Thalian Hall.