A confession: I never totally understood the "classic" status of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I remember watching it for the first time in seventh grade at my friend’s house, and I remember how bewildered I was as she howled and quoted every line. I mean, it was amusing, but was it one of the funniest movies of all time? That seemed doubtful. It was so dumb and old-fashioned and low-budget and … British. I had the feeling I was missing the joke.
So, as a confirmed outsider to the phenomenon, I will report that Spamalot, the musical adaptation of The Holy Grail featuring a book and lyrics written by original Python Eric Idle, currently playing at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, is hysterical and silly and had my mouth hurting from smiling so much by the end of it. It makes sense that a campy and over-the-top film would be perfectly suited for the campy and over-the-top world that is musical theater. Disjointed sketches, farcical gags and a constant bombardment of cultural references fit the stage even better than the screen, and Idle’s updated script speaks to my more contemporary sensibilities while still preserving the spirit of the original film.
Like The Holy Grail, which employed low-budget props and terrible animation to satirize both modern cinema and the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Spamalot doubles as a medieval tale and a broad parody of Broadway tropes. The plot is relatively simple: King Arthur (Arthur Rowan), with the aid of buxom diva The Lady of the Lake (Abigail Raye), rallies up a ragtag team of men to become his knights, and together they set out on the quest for the mythical holy grail (as instructed by God, portrayed as a giant pair of cartoon legs descending from the sky, and voiced by Idle himself). That’s pretty much all that happens. Along the way, our heroes run into some obstacles—lewd Frenchmen, an enchanter named Tim, knights who demand the production of a Broadway show in order to gain passage through the “very expensive” forest—but eventually, King Arthur and his knights sing and dance their way to the grail and everyone lives happily ever after. Or something like that.
Surprisingly, it’s the newer material—the large showy musical numbers that send up Broadway formulas and excesses, set against the backdrop of Tim Hatley’s fabulously gaudy sets and costumes—that works best. While the famous scenes borrowed straight from the film (the killer rabbit, the sing-songy call to “bring out your dead,” the Black Knight who insists on fighting even after all of his limbs have been chopped off) drew hearty laughs and murmurs of recognition from the audience, I found myself wondering if it was their delicious familiarity that made them funny. Indeed, sometimes sketches felt a little out of context stripped from their source material; I doubt I would have been amused by—or even understood—the scene with the Knights Who Say Ni demanding a shrubbery if I hadn’t known its iconic status in the original film.
That’s not to say that the actors don’t approach the entire show with manic energy and impeccable timing thanks to direction by BT McNicholl and choreography by Scott Taylor. (The actors' performances are made even more impressive when you realize that most are playing four or five parts.) But when the ensemble arrives at the gates of Camelot (“What happens in Camelot stays in Camelot,” we’re told) and breaks out into a cheesy Vegas-extravaganza number with Arthur acting as master of ceremonies, or when Sir Lancelot (Adam Grabau) comes out of the closet in a disco dance number straight from The Boy From Oz, I found myself rolling in the aisles.
And everyone who’s ever seen a piece of musical theater will be amused by “The Song That Goes Like This,” an unending duet between the Lady of the Lake and Sir Galahad (Joshua Taylor Hamilton) that mocks the predictable Andrew Lloyd Weber-esque romantic ballad found in almost every show.
Spamalot, which won a Tony for Best Musical in 2005, is admittedly dumb, but, as any Python fan will argue, it’s dumb in the best, most riotous way. Like the original film, even when gags fall flat, the earnestness and conviction with which the performers attack the material keeps you smiling, and its sharp, self-aware send-up of its own musical form is spot-on. I may not have been sufficiently appreciative of the original film, but Spamalot has made me a Monty Python convert.