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Theater Review: 'Monty Python’s Spamalot,' Northern Stage

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Michelle Beth Herman and Jonas Cohen - COURTESY OF MARK WASHBURN
  • Courtesy Of Mark Washburn
  • Michelle Beth Herman and Jonas Cohen

The extravagant production of Monty Python's Spamalot at Northern Stage is aimed squarely at those who've spent the pandemic missing dance numbers that fill the stage, silliness served by the bushel and glitter guns. A cast of 22 trots through two carefree hours of comedy, none of it stale despite a spam joke from the 1970s.

The musical by Eric Idle was a 2005 Broadway hit, fashioned from new material and bits derived from the full Python oeuvre, especially the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The show may not be the best at any one thing, but because it uses almost every comic effect theater can offer, the array of gags has a make-your-own-sundae splendor — including all the sweetness. At this bottomless shtick buffet, you can come back for seconds on ruling-class ridicule, Broadway song parodies and beloved Python punch lines. And there are fart jokes.

King Arthur and his trusty servant, Patsy, are roaming the English countryside, recruiting knights on the off chance that God may have a quest for them. The show's steady forward propulsion owes nothing to a plot — think college road trip, not mission to Mars. Arthur rounds up Lancelot, Galahad, Robin and Bedevere; they meet the Lady of the Lake, a commanding and glittery presence complete with cheerleading Laker Girls.

The characters move from gag to gag, splitting up as needed so Arthur's four knights can switch costumes to play additional roles. Rarely have costumes brought more entertainment value. These dazzle with spangles, express medieval misery, carry on grand disco traditions we're always in danger of losing and brand the knights with logos fit for franchising.

For a dance number to feel over-the-top, the attire has to lead the way. Northern Stage has rented the original Broadway costumes designed by Tim Hatley to span the show's head-spinning range of settings, from Finland to France to medieval muck, with a big detour to Las Vegas.

The scenic design, by Lex Liang, contains quick-change castle walls with lots of visual surprises. Daniel Kotlowitz's lighting design makes every mood larger than life.

Monty Python humor dates back to the '70s, when the troupe revolutionized sketch comedy with irreverence and surrealism. Idle's musical was a success in 2005, suggesting that deadpan Britishism, creative anachronism and hypertrophic literalism remain comedy gold.

The song lyrics include concept humor, such as the wonderfully self-referential "Whatever Happened to My Part," in which the Lady of the Lake reminds us that she hadn't been onstage since Act 1. It's a cry for attention, backed up with pure Broadway bravado.

Some of the sketches are lifted directly from the Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie. Idle, an original Python, mined the comedy troupe's work from film and TV and subtitled the musical as "lovingly ripped off." The Python wit and tone endure as Idle revives the Knights Who Say Ni and other tropes, then proceeds to skewer Broadway.

The generic power ballad is satirized in "The Song That Goes Like This," a love song how-to manual, listing each musical element required to fit the Andrew Lloyd Webber template. Some references fly by — a snippet of Stephen Sondheim, a dance evoking Fiddler on the Roof, the swift entrance and exit of Man of La Mancha's Don Quixote, introduced as Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Show.

Monty Python humor is built from ridiculous juxtaposition. Stuff a medieval peasant with an Oxford vocabulary and the political theory of the late 20th century, and you have a bit. Equip King Arthur with heartfelt devotion to Britain but take away his horse, and you have a man nobly pretending to canter on his own two legs. Sprinkle absolutely anything from the modern world into what's supposed to be 932 AD, and you have knights in chain mail under a disco ball. Works every time.

Carol Dunne's direction salts in sight gags, luxuriously long takes, rat-a-tat rejoinders and the underlying secret of all comedy: communication between performers. When Arthur bemoans his doomed quest in "I'm All Alone," he sings grandiosely while his steadfast servant makes the tiniest gestures, delicately trying to remind Arthur he still has a sidekick.

Punch lines that land with knockout strength alternate with sly ripostes that take an extra beat to catch. A fine facility for comic rhythm distinguishes the entire cast, and when the actors shift gears, they move with smooth synchromesh.

Jonas Cohen is a delightfully stuffy King Arthur. From his entrance on an imaginary horse, it's easy to root for this sweetly brainless leader with a crown tilted crookedly on his head.

Thom Miller is hilarious playing Galahad as a narcissist — and with that wig, where else can he go? As Lancelot, Cordell Cole engages in ill-advised bravery and keeps on surviving. Scott Cote, as Robin, is the lovable schlemiel of the round table, chickenhearted to the end.

Ben Liebert plays Patsy, clapping coconuts for horse hooves and suffering in the glorious shadow of the king. As the Lady of the Lake, Michelle Beth Herman belts out songs to lampoon Broadway excess with the vocal power to top those showstoppers.

A large ensemble dances, sings and, under Ashleigh King's choreography, crosses the overkill threshold every time. Music director Kevin A. Smith leads a seven-piece band that performs live from the rehearsal hall behind the stage.

Spamalot is a cavalcade of silliness whose feel-good message, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," is designed to outdo all other feel-good messages. Yes, much of the comedy depends on extreme stereotypes, and one must be in the mood to see gay men, Jews and the French crudely caricatured. But dammit, a sword fight with baguettes is funny.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Laughs a Lot | Theater review: Monty Python's Spamalot, Northern Stage"