Comedy can be an ephemeral thing. The humor of a late-night stand-up routine, built around the front page of that morning’s newspaper, probably won’t last the year, while the writing of long-gone sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Golden Girls still holds up and regularly sends me into gales of laughter. So I was curious to see if Monty Python’s Spamalot, a musical comedy that debuted on Broadway during the second Bush administration, based on a beloved movie released during the incidental reign of Gerald Ford, has a shelf life longer than its namesake canned pork product.
The answer is yes, thanks largely to an excellent cast of consummate comedians and a script that derives its humor from the timelessly absurd. It’s still safe to eat, even if certain bites might taste a little off.
Monty Python’s Spamalot tells the story of King Arthur (James Monroe Iglehart) and his quest for the Holy Grail. He gathers a retinue of knights: Sir Robin the cowardly (Michael Urie), Sir Bedevere the dim (Jimmy Smagula), Sir Dennis Galahad the socialist (Nik Walker), and Sir Lancelot the closeted (Taran Killam). Together they confront the Knights who say “Ni,” a killer bunny, and a rude Frenchman whose highly creative insults could only come from someone who speaks English as a second language. As the guidance counselor cliché goes, it’s less about the destination than the journey.
Director and choreographer Josh Rhodes delivers a solid staging with plenty of tap-dancing, comic mugging, and general Broadway glitz. Jen Caprio’s costumes give us Las Vegas Ren Faire, all handsomely lit by Cory Pattak. Paul Tate dePoo III has designed a two-level motte-and-bailey set that provides ample playing space while keeping us in a medieval mindset. He transforms this stationary scenery with his aggressively hideous projections, which look like they were designed for a Sierra computer game circa 1995 (one suspects this is purposeful, although not as hilarious as intended). We do get plenty of laughs out of Tom Watson’s over-the-top wigs, which help the cast transform into a succession of increasingly ridiculous minor characters.
The songs (by Eric Idle and John du Prez) are as they were in 2005, with light book revisions by Idle. “The Song That Goes Like This,” a power ballad duet between Galahad and the Lady of the Lake (Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer) is still funny, even though it sends up a style of musical theater that should be placed on the endangered species list (a crashing chandelier projected onto the upstage walls seems to acknowledge this).
The mustiest numbers come in the second act with “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” (“…if you don’t have any Jews”) and “His Name is Lancelot,” a similarly perfunctory shout-out to the gays. Broadway musicals still regularly pander this way, but one suspects there is a cleverer way to send-up this behavior in 2023. With its chorus adorned in Copacabana ruffles and extravagant mustaches, the latter song feels like a 70s bathhouse fetish fantasy. At least Rhodes attempts to update it with a sly reference to Sasha Velour, while sound designers Kai Harada and Haley Parher throw in a Grindr notification for good measure. By the end, it feels like an earnest approximation of gay culture as attempted by ChatGPT.
The actors help us overlook the dated material by delivering performances that accentuate their own specific comic talents. Killam has a gift for squeezing humor out of unexpected words and inflections, and almost certainly smashes the record for the longest raspberry ever delivered from a Broadway stage as the French Taunter. Urie is a magpie of comedic styles, channeling Noël Coward one moment, The Princess Bride the next. Ethan Slater astounds in no fewer than eight roles, with memorable takes on all (one imagines his backstage quick-change routine is a show unto itself). Christopher Fitzgerald has the audience in stitches with just the slightest change in facial expression as Patsy, Arthur’s workhorse squire. And Iglehart, so often the comic force sucking up all the oxygen in the room, proves he can be just as compelling in the straight-man role.
The show-stealing performance comes from Kritzer, whose baroque riffs and flawless comic timing make her an ideal Lady of the Lake. Every shady side-eye sends a wave of laughter through the audience, and the response is even greater for her naughty Broadway asides (Lea Michele gets a mention). Spamalot is at its very best when the plot suspends for Kritzer’s cabaret act.
That would normally be a bad sign for a Broadway musical, an indication that the actors are desperately trying to compensate for a boring script. Not so with Spamalot, a show that works both as a vessel for Monty Python nostalgia and a platform for the comic talents of this generation of Broadway performers. It asks very little of you over the course of 2 hours, 20 minutes, and sends you on your way with a smile — and when it comes to musical comedy, that’s perfectly delightful.