News Column

'Sheer insanity' in Muhlenberg's regional premiere of 'Monty Python's Spamalot'

July 5, 2014

By Kathy Lauer-Williams, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

July 05--"Spamalot" is "utterly shameless," says director James Peck. "No joke is too cheap."

From the giant feet of God, which descend from the heavens (or at least the flies of Muhlenberg'sBaker Theatre), to a number that parodies "Fiddler on the Roof," nothing is sacred in the musical described as "lovingly ripped off" from the cult British film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

The Broadway musical, a Tony winner, makes its regional premiere Wednesday at Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. The original 2005 production, directed by Mike Nichols, won three Tony Awards, including for Best Musical, and received 14 nominations.

"Spamalot" is about King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail, kind of. Sir Lancelot is a closeted homosexual. Sir Robin gathers up dead bodies. The Lady of the Lake is a frustrated diva. And Sir Galahad is a Marxist revolutionary who won't accept Arthur as king.

The material is still getting laughs 25 years after the movie on which it is based and 45 years after a group of six British comedians created a ground-breaking BBC comedy sketch show called "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

Monty Python was created by Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Graham Chapman, who had a hugely successful television show that ran on the BBC 1969 to 1974. The show spawned several movies, including "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in 1975, "Life of Brian" in 1979 and their final film, "The Meaning of Life" in 1983.

"They are comic geniuses," Peck says. "The quality of the writing is impeccable and they make it seem effortless. It's kind of chaotic, but is masterfully crafted."

The staying power of Monty Python is evident by the excitement surrounding a reunion of the living cast members for "Monty Python Live (Mostly)" a series of shows at London'sO2 Arena that run July 20. The event includes Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin. Chapman died in 1989. The July 20 show will be broadcast live to movie theaters worldwide, including Carmike Promenade 16 in Center Valley. The show will be screened again July 23 and 24.

Peck says he discovered the irreverent and boundary-pushing "Monty Python's Flying Circus" when he was in high school.

"I thought it was the funniest thing in the history of the planet," he says.

Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre Artistic Director Charles Richter says he was "not the biggest Monty Python fan in the world" and was hesitant to see "Spamalot" when it opened on Broadway. But he was glad he took the chance.

"I was completely blown away," he says of the show. " 'Spamalot' is just insanity. It's sheer zaniness."

Richter says when Idle decided to make a Broadway musical out of "Holy Grail," the other Python members were skeptical that it could be translated to the American stage. Idle wrote additional material and collaborated on the songs with John Du Prez, who had composed the score for "The Meaning of Life." Idle got the name from lyrics in the movie that go, 'I eat ham and jam and Spam a lot.'"

"It's an incredibly funny show and you don't have to be a 'Monty Python' fan to love 'Spamalot,'" Richter says. "It is the musicialization of the movie, but is very aware of itself as a Broadway musical and makes fun of the form."

Peck says many of the most beloved scenes from "Holy Grail" are brought to the stage word-for-word. Fans will recognize the Knights who say "Ni," Tim the Enchanter, the killer rabbit and Arthur's servant Patsy, who makes horse hoof sounds with coconuts.

Also threaded through the show are parodies of Broadway musicals, from a number patterned after "Phantom of the Opera" to a nod to "Les Miserables." One scene pays homage to "Singing in the Rain," complete with umbrellas.

"It is a glorious mash-up of zany scenes from the movie with a comic pastiche of Broadway-show styles," Peck says.

At one point, Arthur and his knights go to Camelot, which looks a lot like the Vegas hotel Excalibur and features show girls and a flashy gay bar.

"The humor is shameless and without restraint," Peck says.

The operatically trained Ed Bara, last seen as Caiaphas in last year's "Jesus Christ Superstar," plays the hapless King Arthur. He is also a member of the Muhlenberg faculty.

Shani Hadjian plays the Lady of the Lake and must parody well-known divas, including Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Cher.

Peck says Curtis Dretsch, director of design and technical theatre for Muhlenberg, has created a set that is "quite extravagant."

The show's first act features turrets and a castle that spins around to a Technicolor nightmare, while the second act is the "dark and very expensive forest" of bright and colorful painted trees, Peck says.

"It has a bit of a feeling of a book of paper dolls, or a middle-school medieval pageant," he says. "It's kind of clunky but beautiful. It's a little like a Renaissance fair version of history."

He says the set has a cartoony-quality and echoes the graphic artwork of Gilliam that became iconic in the original series. He says many of the costumes are inspired by the costumes in the movie.

"The show satisfies the people who are huge cult fans of movie by giving them enough of their memory of the film but also give us ways to make it our own," Peck says.

The orchestra, led by Justin Brehm, will have a very traditional brassy big band sound, Peck says.

The songs, which include "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from "Life of Brian," are "zany show music," Richter says.

But above all the show is about the jokes, which come fast and furious, Peck says.

"It's a rollicking good ride," he says. "It's a blast doing it. We laugh and laugh."

Richter concurs, calling it "one of the funniest pieces of material ever done on the Broadway stage."

kathy.lauer@mcall.com

610-778-2235

'SPAMALOT'

-- What: Muhlenberg College Summer Music Theatre presents the comedy adapted from the 1975 movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which parodies the legend of King Arthur and his band of knights.

-- When: Opens Wednesday, runs 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through July 27

-- Where: Muhlenberg College, Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion, 2400 Chew St., Allentown

-- How much: $39, $33, adults; $36, $29, seniors; $20, $18, students. Also, $10 tickets for ages 5 to 18 at Sunday matinees.

-- Info: 484-664-3693, http://www.muhlenberg.edu/SMT

-- What else: "Monty Python Live," a reunion of the living former Python members in London's O2 stadium, will be broadcast at 2:30 p.m.July 20 and 7:30 p.m.July 23 and 24 at Carmike Promenade 16 in Center Valley. Tickets are $18. tickets.fandango.com.

-- Also: The Lehigh Valley Arts Council is hosting "Behind the Scenes," exploring the set design of "Spamalot" with Curtis Dretsch at 11 a.m.July 12 at Trexler Pavilion. Tickets: $15. Info: 610-437-5915, visit http://www.LVArtsCouncil.org.

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(c)2014 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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