Monty Python’s Spamalot!

Yup. Pennywise, Niles and Moe Syzlak

By David B. Grelck
January 04, 2005

So this year on New Year’s Eve, the wife and I didn’t go to a party, we went to the THEATRE! (Notice the usage of RE instead of ER) And what did we see at the theatre? Why Monty Python. Monty Python? In one of the very rare instances where it’s good to be a Chicagoan, Eric Idle chose to mount a test run of his Broadway bound show Spamalot! here in the Windy City first. We almost didn’t go to, due to Ticketmaster’s sudden desire to sell the tickets a week earlier than planned. A whole night spent on that godawful website, TRYING again and again to get a batch of seven tickets for an admittedly greedy group which then dwindled. Two people bowed out. The remainder had but one option. A New Year’s Eve show. But the tickets were purchased with nary a second thought.

I don’t really like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There, I’ve said it. But perhaps I’m harsh. After all, it was the first Python film I saw, and thereafter witnessed the brilliance of Life of Brian and the all out anarchic mean spiritedness of The Meaning of Life, or even the cinematic pastry And Now For Something Completely Different. How could Grail compare to these? It looks like it was shot as a student film and doesn’t even have a final act (remember the cops showing up). Perhaps also it’s the film that the people who don’t really want to get to know the Pythons watch and quote so that they might be “cool.” But again, perhaps I’m just overly hard on Grail.

Spamalot! on the other hand has quite the pedigree. A single Python, to be sure, but one Python is better than an entire room full of, well, most anyone. Eric Idle spearheads this remake or “loving rip-off” as the poster proclaims of The Holy Grail, writing the script and songs along with composer John Du Prez who I was delighted to note did the bizarre and quirky score for John Cleese’s classic film A Fish Called Wanda. This was enough to make me take notice. I’d missed the Chicago run of The Producers a few years back and I didn’t want to hear great things about this one and then be horrified when they asked for hundreds of dollars per ticket when it comes back. When I saw the full page ad in the Arts section of the Chicago Trib, though. That cemented it. First of all, Mike Nichols was directing. Yeah, THAT Mike Nichols. The Graduate Mike Nichols for crying out loud! And if that wasn’t enough, the supporting cast was David Hyde Pierce from Frasierand Hank Azaria, the man responsible for a good hearty percentage of the population of Springfield. The clincher for me, however, was the lead. Tim Curry was to play Arthur. I’d been a fan of Tim Curry since Clue and likely before. I still remember that shocking moment at a Planet Hollywood in New York City when I had the revelation that the strange looking woman in the Rocky Horror ads in the Films, Incorporated magazines I had, well, that woman was a man. And not just a man. Tim Curry. Pennywise.

Now that I’ve built it up a lot. (I’m still trying to explain myself, of course.) Let’s talk about the show itself. The Shubert Theatre in Chicago is very old, very skinny and very steep. Especially where we were sitting in the nosebleed section. It seems to be designed so that if the person in front of you leans forward just a bit you can’t see the stage. The audience I saw it with was full of those kind of people. But no matter. The stage design was brilliant. Two askew castle turrets book ended the stage with cartoony Gilliamesque clouds hanging above. The bulk of the show was performed on or near a single chunk of castle wall that could be rotated to show us inside and out. In true Python tradition, the entire cast played multiple roles save Curry who, like Graham Chapman had only the responsibility of Arthur. Azaria took on the bulk of the Cleese roles and Hyde Pierce, the Idle roles. Aside from our three leads who all stepped up to the plate wonderfully and weren’t just aping the performances in the film, the real standout of the show is Sara Ramirez who plays The Lady of the Lake. She’s in full on Diva mode in this show and holds her own with the goofy guys admirably.

Perhaps the best thing about the show was the fact that, while it is definitely still Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it is actually more so something altogether new and different. Huge passages from the film are yanked and dropped right into the show. The best segments of the film in fact. These are the moments that get applause at the theatre. The Black Knight, the holy hand grenade, the rabbits with very sharp teeth, Dennis. The best moments of this show, however, were those that diverted sharply from the film. The Lady of the Lake takes on the Sarah Brightman role in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. She’s almost playing from a different text. Midway through the second act, when we haven’t seen her for a while, she shows up at a closed curtain, demands a spot, and sings an aria about not having been in the show in a while called “What Ever Happened to My Part?” She also takes part in the largest skewer of Webber with Sir Galahad as they sing “The Song Which Goes Like This.” When the song starts, they ride out on a small boat, over a misty lake with a chandelier hanging above them and sing a song very reminiscent of “The Music of the Night” that goes on about how once in every show a song comes along that starts out very low…you get the idea.

Like the film itself, the show gets zanier and wackier as it progresses, but unlike the film, it doesn’t fall apart before its crescendo. The plot is altered in that Arthur’s quest is to find the grail and take the show to Broadway, something that can’t be done without Jews according to the films show-stopping number which ends with the wine bottle dance from Fiddler on the Roof and an enormous light covered Star of David descending from the rafters. Lancelot undergoes an important revelation about himself as well, leading to another enormous show-stopping number.

And then, it ends with a sing-along. Complete with words and follow the bouncing grail.

Spamalot! Is unlike any show I’ve ever seen. And that I saw it in a suit on New Year’s Eve just adds to the surreality of it. It has so much unbelievable bombast that you sit there almost amazed that this actually made it on stage. Jaw gaping and a huge grin. To those in Chicago, tickets have long been sold out. Those in New York, this is one to see, for Python fans and non fans alike. (My wife is in the second camp and she loved it.) It’s truly amazing.

Like Geek Girls? Check out Dave’s own personal stash at The Girls of Geekdom website. While you’re there, why don’tcha pick up a calendar? The good Lord would’ve wanted it that way!