The folks who've crafted Spamalot as if piecing together a gaudy Tinkertoy haven't just reexamined what made musicals of the '40s and '50s entertain large audiences. They've scampered back to the '30s, when musicals were built around stage clowns like Bert Lahr and Ed Wynn, and even farther back to the '20s, when it was virtually a requirement that frivolous plots end with a wedding.
It's giving nothing away to say that Spamalot finishes with nuptials, since it's the getting to the knotty knot-tying that's the point. The show has six clowns at its dizzying vortex; Monty Python fans know that the iconoclastic original troupe was six-strong and that the property is, according to the title page, "a new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Skipping through the comically addled proceedings are top-billed (but not over-the-title) Tim Curry as a nonplused King Arthur, David Hyde Pierce as a timid knight, and Hank Azaria as a Lancelot with sexual-identity challenges. Billed below them but no less delighfully goofy are Christopher Sieber as a vain Galahad, Michael McGrath as Arthur's put-upon servant "Patsy," and Christian Borle as the effeminate son of a gruff laird. As an ensemble, most of them doubling with aplomb, they're as effective as the silly sextet that originally populated The Producers.
The latest in a series of shows adapted from box-office-tested movies, Spamalot repeats some of the source flick's sequences but isn't entirely true to its origins. King Arthur, miming horsemanship while Patsy knocks two halves of a coconut shell together, roams Middle-Ages Britain collecting knights. Having collected a motley cadre, he's ordered by God (John Cleese in voice-over) to locate the Holy Grail. Along the way to finding the elusive vessel in an unlikely place, Arthur repeatedly encounters The Lady of the Lake (the big-voiced Sara Ramirez, living up to advance hype). And so it goes under the ever-canny direction of Mike Nichols, Casey Nicholaw's lively, babe-alicious choreography races our pulses as Tim Hatley's sets and costumes wow our eyes, their efforts enhanced by Hugh Vanstone's lighting and Acme Sound Partners' sound design.
The storyline of the show isn't truly a storyline. Rather, it's an excuse for librettist-lyricist-composer Eric Idle (who is far from idle) to dispense routines ranging in subject matter from avian aerodynamics to flatulence. Working with co-composer John Du Prez, Idle spoofs aged-in-wood musical comedy conceits, just as the source material knocks certain film conventions. Idle and Du Prez make sport of formulaic B'way ditties in "The Song That Goes Like This," which goofily pokes at the sort of power ballads that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Frank Wildhorn know something about. Firing politically incorrect shots with the fervor of Mel Brooks, the madly winking songsmiths go so far as to offer "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," which nods at Jewish influences on the Great White Way. (Will some saucy cabaret singer soon do a mini-medley of this Spamalot pseudo-aria with "Springtime for Hitler"? It could happen!)
The Spamalot score is one aspect in which the show differs from its early-musical-comedy predecessors. Though the scores of those shows naturally included comedy numbers, they were also intended to show off the abilities of outstanding melodists and wordsmiths (not to mention outstanding singers). Mocking everything in their wake, Idle and Du Prez set out to be no more sincere than two riverboat gamblers. They are masters of the throwaway ditty; while their tunes are almost unfailingly delightful, they give the impression of having been written in a flash and are instantly forgettable. Except, that is, when they sound very much like something else -- as, say, the number titled "The Holy Grail" pays homage to John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
Since Spamalot derives its drive from situation gags rather than dramatic thrust (in contrast to the Holy Grail search in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones entry), its effectiveness relies on the tightness of each sequence. As a result, the show's second half -- highlighted by David Hyde Pierce's "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" -- flags. Adding to the detriments is the accumulation of self-referential jokes. When Sara Ramirez sings "The Diva's Lament" about having nothing to do so far in Act II, she unfortunately recalls Joanna Gleason's Dirty Rotten Scoundrel first-act line about assuming that her character will have some further purpose after intermission. The slackening of the writing does begin to dampen the show, but not enough to let it be forgot that once there was a spot with many shining moments that was known as Spamalot.