‘Monty Python’s Spamalot’ is back — deliciously silly, slightly dated
The Daily Beast
November 16, 2023
“Spamalot” returns to Broadway, and the Python-faithful will love it, even it feels a little lost in comedy time. Plus, Dianne Wiest plays a woman seeking fame in “Scene Partners.”
Spamalot, first seen on Broadway in 2005, is back—and the good news is the really good silly bits of this parody of Arthurian legend are just as good-silly as they always were. But the bits that felt dated have only become more dated; one a song about Jews running Broadway at this moment sounds not just dated but weird in this politically vexed moment (especially with a huge, glittering Star of David), the other is a rousing hymn to gay pride for Sir Lancelot (Taran Killam), which is discordantly beamed in from another era.
Both aren’t intended as offensive, yet you may end up experiencing them with a grimace at the cringe-stereotypes paraded in their composition. Some of our audience laughed, many did not. But, as this is a musical—score by John Du Prez and Eric Idle, with lyrics and book by Idle—filled gleefully and sometimes very wittily with stereotypes (particularly when it comes to the French), even one’s cringe becomes compromised with Spamalot. It’s its own dumb joke rollercoaster—everything and everyone is up for ribbing.
The revival that opened on Broadway tonight (St. James Theatre, booking through April 28, 2024) has even inserted a few pop-culture-topical references—to Ozempic and to Ariana DeBose’s “Angela Bassett did the thing,” for example.
Mostly it is determined to revel, as its blurb proclaims, in being a musical “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” If you’re a Python fan of yore, it is like having a very familiar set of nerve endings and laughter prompts reactivated. This is a show about putting on a show, with references not just to Monty Python, but Broadway, its stars and business.
There is even, should you be a Brit abroad, the Proustian satirical madeleine of hearing a twist of oh-so-familiar weather forecast. “In Mercia and the two Anglias—Plague: with a 50% chance of pestilence and famine coming out of the Northeast at 12 miles per hour.”
When Ethan Slater’s Historian character (Slater also plays Prince Herbert) first seeks a song for the musical, and a crazy song about Finland plays out, he returns to exasperatedly say, “I said England!”
And so it is that horse riding is conveyed through coconuts masquerading as hooves, and then a debate unfolds about coconuts got to England via swallows. The knights are a bit iffy, on or off horseback. Sir Robin (Michael Urie) wants to dance, not fight. Sir Dennis Galahad (Nik Walker) begins as a Marxist revolutionary—“We’re living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy…”—before the Lady of the Lake (a triumphantly fabulous Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer) makes her first, galvanizing appearance to sing “Come With Me” and “The Song That Goes Like This,” expertly mocking power ballads, the phenomenon of the Broadway diva, the mangling of lyrics in power ballads, and also—as the show goes on—her own diminishing presence in it (she wants more, dammit). That Kritzer comes to knowingly dominate the show, so she/the Lady of the Lake succeed in their twinned mission, which includes encouraging a standing ovation with an eliciting flutter of her fingers.
The show’s gentler, dumber humor is its most winning, such as arguing over what the Grail is, and if it’s just a cup can’t another one be bought? When Arthur (James Monroe Iglehart—excellent, as both booming and bone-weary) notes the grail is both a metaphor and symbol, the crash of a cymbal comes from the orchestra pit, to be greeted by a look of pure actorly pain. The songs are best at their most grandly ridiculous. “Find your grail!” is the refrain of the central song, mimicking the ludicrousness of ballads and their overwrought lyrics.
It is quite clear everyone on stage is having a very good time, not just playing such outlandish characters, but also in-joking about their very business. You can see smiles and giggles being visibly, desperately contained as the jokes rain down.
If you’ve missed snickering at a show comfortable with its own juvenility, you will love the moment a French knight, aka “Taunter” (Killam, merrily stealing the show in one of its best moments) refuses to open his castle to the English knights, instead regaling them with bizarre, non-landing insults, then a sequence of operatically blown raspberries. “I don’t want to talk to you no more you empty- headed, animal-food-trough wipers!… I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!” There’s a wooden rabbit, and a killer rabbit. When someone recommends something should be skipped, someone starts skipping.
Can a well-presented shrubbery be the key to the reclamation of the grail? Is looking on the bright side of life (Christopher Fitzgerald sings this famous song with a jaunty subtlety) going to be enough? Will anyone hear the Lady of the Lake’s meta-cry of pain: “Whatever happened to my part? It was exciting at the start…”
The audience laughing and applauding at this song’s crescendo obscured its final line so, instead of “Remember me! Remember me, Antoinette Perry!” the line submerged under the din sounded like something referencing Matthew Perry, which—wow!—may have been a little too current.
Spamalot’s expertly written and performed silliness is endless, beguiling, and winning, and so well-done that—despite the gay and Jewish clunkers of songs—the musical remains a daffy, rollicking night out. The final confetti canon—a Broadway staple, and often a last desperate roll of the dice in any show—here feels absolutely perfect.
John J. Caswell’s play (Vineyard Theatre, to Dec. 17) is a colorful and intriguing showcase for the formidable talents of Dianne Wiest, who plays its lead character with brio and magnetism—yet it is also a baffling play, and not in a good way for the most part. Wiest is Meryl Kowalski (a name knowingly mashing up the differently famous Streep and Stanley), living in indeterminate time zones and places, who—following the death of her husband, and an end to a confining, unhappy marriage—wants to become a great actor.
Along the way, under Rachel Chavkin’s direction, she ends up in an acting class, and reconnecting with her sister (Johanna Day), whose earthy and get-real presence roots not just her sister in reality, but also the play, which comes to be rather untethered and opaque. At its end, we are not sure of the reality of Meryl, the reality of Meryl’s family, her pained past, and her glamorous present. But in its brush portraits of fame (a final scene with a glossily polished TV interviewer played by Kristen Sieh is particularly well done), aging, desire, and ambition, the play waspishly hits its targets, even as it leaves the audience scratching their heads over who and what they have just watched.