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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Monty Python's Spamalot
Palo Alto Players
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule


The Cast
Photo by Joyce Goldschmid
Upfront, let me just confess that I may be the only person anyone reading this review has ever come across who is not a Monty Python fan and who in fact has never even watched a full Monty Python episode. When friends bring up Python-related jokes, I sit with a dumb look on my face while they all howl after just a few words that recall some iconic scene they have all seen a hundred times.

That said, I find much to laugh at ... no, guffaw .. no, bellow unabashedly each time I sit through Monty Python's Spamalot, the 2005 Tony-winning Best Musical by long-time Python writer/actor Eric Idle (book and lyrics) and John Du Prez (who collaborated with Idle on music). First, I love the obvious (sometimes painfully so) parodies on other musicals such as Les Misérables, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Second, the modern and outlandish twists and turns on the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are hilarious and require no knowledge of the original 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail to get the constant humor. And finally, the show's over-the-top stunts, eye-popping slapstick, and downright silliness is a perfect escape from the current, daily news headlines of other clownish acts in our own national scene that are not at all funny.

Bringing to a local theatre a big, Broadway stage show that many people have already seen either in New York or on one of its tours can be tricky. But when that smaller production fills its stage with props delicious in their ingenuity and hilarity (Scott Ludwig), costumes reaping laughs as soon as they are seen (Melissa Sanchez), and choreography both hilariously tapped on tables (Stephanie Bayer) and rollickingly high-kicked/low-stepped on stage (Andrew Ceglio), then we have a potential winner of a show. And when a full cast of characters parade forth in high/low-comedic, caricature fashion bringing their foibles, follies and (yes, sorry) farts with them (as well as their outstanding singing voices since this is a musical), then a production like that now running at Palo Alto Players is nothing short of a ridiculously good time.

In one sentence, Monty Python's Spamalot recounts how the ancient King of the Britons, Arthur, recruits his famed knights, receives a holy command from above to find the Holy Grail, travels with his band throughout the continent seeking the prize while warding off plagues and bullies, and finally finds both his cup and a bride (who becomes his Queen Guinevere). But in Eric Idle's Python version, the tale does of course not quite unfold so straightforwardly.

If you haven't seen the show, you may want to skip this paragraph and discover the details in person. From the beginning, actors misunderstand an initial historical lecture and come out singing and dancing as fish-slapping natives of FINland instead of ENGland ("Fisch Schlapping Song"). Arthur rides around on an invisible horse with his pal Patsy making the necessary clip-clop sounds with coconut shells he wears like a brassier. Knights come from collectors of plague victims (Sirs Robin and Lancelot) who attempt to dispose of bodies not yet deceased such as Not-Dead Fred ("I am Not Dead Yet") or from politically radical peasants (Sir Galahad). There is a Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Show (looking a lot like Don Quixote) along with weird evil knights who only say "Ni" and demand shrubberies as passage payments. A killer rabbit, French soldiers who attack the knights with can-can dancers and a barnyard cow, a black knight who insists fighting Arthur even as he loses body part after body part, and a demand that the knights must put on a Broadway musical (something not to be invented for a thousand years in a land not yet discovered ... and something the knights cannot do without the talent of Jews, which every successful Broadway play must have). These are just a few of the trials and tribulations Arthur and his knights must endure before they miraculously find the Holy Grail.

For the parody of a legend to work, an Arthur both lovable and laughable is a must; and boy howdy, did director Andrew Ceglio ever strike gold! With a broad smile that is almost a mile wide, eyes and eyebrows that speak their own expressive dialect, and a wonderfully affected voice that sounds and sings in a kingly fashion—well, maybe not in exactly the royal manner we usually associate with current British rulers—Michael Monagle is a King Arthur totally right for a Monty Python spoof. His always-present, dutifully loyal sidekick Patsy is wonderfully played by Joey McDaniel, who packs a bulky knapsack that seems to be brimming with his own stored-up tricks of both subtle and wild gestures and facial expressions. These particularly come into play as Arthur at one point sings a rib-tickling "I'm All Alone" while Patsy stands nearby communicating in a hundred, silent ways, "What am I ... chopped liver?"

Among the knights, Josiah Frampton as Sir Robin particularly stands out, using both his deep-set, sad eyes and his darting, heavy eyebrows to full comic effect and his pitch-perfect vocals to blast forth in songs fun and furious ("I Am Not Dead Yet," "Brave Sir Robin," and "You Won't Succeed on Broadway"). He also shows great proclivity for swishing his hips, moving into Groucho Marx-like territories, and generally mimicking big show dance numbers in a variety of ways.

Blond-headed, pretty boy Sir Galahad (Nick Kenrick) also brings a full set of lungs to his part that allows him to belt a sung number with clarity and no hint of distortion. When joined by The Lady of the Lake (Juliet Green), both are able to make great fun of the sweeping ballads often heard in Frank Wildhorn or Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals while also singing with the full aplomb such numbers require ("The Song That Goes Like This"). Among his other parts, Mr. Kenrick is a hoot as the Black Knight who will not give up the fight, no matter how many arms he loses.

As the beautiful Lady of the Lake, Ms. Green is the show's diva extraordinaire. She polishes off every number with class even while often soliciting much laughter with lyrics like "once in every show there comes a song like this," later to be reprised as "twice in every show there ..."

The long, lanky Eric Borchers uses to the max his lengthy extensions and his spark-filled vocals as he moves and sings to audience delight as Not Dead Fred ("I Am Not Dead Yet") and as the lovesick, gotta-sing-now Prince Herbert ("Where Are You," "Here Are You"). The latter prince's supposed plunge to an early demise leads to a lucky catch by Sir Lancelot (Brad Satterwhite), both in time to save Herbert's life and for the two of them to come out to the world, singing and disco-ing with a full ensemble of cute boys in "My Name Is Lancelot."

Speaking of ensemble pieces, Andrew Ceglio directs and choreographs number after number that are executed with tongue fully in cheek but also with impressive precision and skill by the ensemble members (Sarah Liz Amoroso, Jimmy Ashmore, Melissa Baxter, Stephanie Bayer, Alysia N. Beltran, and Lillian Kautz). The range of choreographed farce is wide and inclusive—from a Fiddler-like bottle dance (with Holy Grails on the hats) to Fosse-like Chorus Line moves, from French can-cans to Las Vegas kicklines, from a Chelsea gay club scene to an English band of minstrels.

Sound (Grant Huberty) and lighting (Rick Amerson) make their contributions to the hilarity as even do the members of the fine orchestra under the direction of Katie Coleman (especially as heard in their overture). From its pit, the large orchestra, however, does have a tendency to drown out Mr. Idle's fast-moving, word-packed lyrics when sung by the un-miked ensemble members. Often, unfortunately, only the gist of their sung hilarity was discernible the day I attended (as was corroborated by a number of other audience members during intermission).

But that aside, the laughs still pour forth throughout this overall outstanding production. Palo Alto Players continues to prove as the near-octogenarian company that prides itself in being "of and for the community" it can also produce full-scale musicals with full flair and fancy (Chicago, Disney's Little Mermaid, etc.). With Monty Python's Spamalot, that tradition of making it big time on an overall small stage continues.

Monty Python's Spamalot continues through May 14, 2017, at Palo Alto Players, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available at www.paplayers.org or by calling 650-329-0891.


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