...When it's being handled by Mike Nichols. For someone who is
obviously a great fan, Nichols doesnt seem to get the essence of Monty
My wife Sara and I went to see Spamalot,
the stage musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail,
in New York previews on Saturday (matinee), February 26, 2005, with my
14-year old son. He and I are great Python fans, with Sara less
so. We sat up in the nosebleed seats, but it's Broadway, and if you
aren't horribly nearsighted there are no bad seats. The seat
numbering, however, is appropriate to Dark Age farce. The theatre is
impressive, and the outer set is as well - windowed castle walls, tilted
in, framing a portcullis curtain.
We immediately encountered the best part of the show
(but that's not a good thing): the playbill. Following the
general pattern of the movie, the first few pages are a playbill for a
Finnish "Moosical," with background and cast and crew bios (plus
the footnote requesting that patrons not smoke or speak Swedish).
Then, embedded in the "legitimate" section of the playbill, are
many comic gems among the regular minutiae of actor and cast bios
(including Monty Python "him"self).
After all were settled in, we received a very
Pythonesque advisory about cell phones and pagers reminding folks that the
theatre was staffed by armed knights, and the merriment commenced.
This will not be a scene-by-scene analysis, so Im jumping to overall
impression - actually, Im jumping back to what lead all this off.
To fully grasp the genius of Monty Python, it helps to
watch "comic actors" attempt to duplicate it. David Hyde
Pierce, Hank Azaria, and especially Tim Curry don't seem to understand
that Python characters, for the most part, are not attempting
to be funny - in fact, much of the humor comes from the investment they
make in the absolute seriousness of their attitudes and situations.
In a way, they are all straight men for each other, continuously.
Graham Chapman's Arthur was never snarky, and his being King was all of
his being (plus, I now realize, his ability to be superior without ever
being condescending). He was not just the plot center, he was the emotional
center of the piece, whose earnestness, even heart, held everyone
together. Think about it - what makes Dennis, and Bedevere, even the
Black Knight so funny is that the Python actors play them so
straight. Only the French Taunter is really trying to be
funny, but playing against the knights is what makes that funny.
Python is not about punch lines (meaning scene punctuation rather than
joke pay-offs); they are either throwaways ("Its a fair
cop.") or immediately defused ("Its only a model";
"Well, you have to know these things when you're King.")
The plot moves in and away from the original, mixing
scenes in sometimes bizarre ways, with the additional conceit of the group
being ordered to put on a Broadway production. Several scenes from
the movie are missing, some more understandable than others, to make room
for production numbers. Eric Idle, by himself, wasn't up to this
task - one wonders what they might have been able to do if the group had
collaborated once more in putting this together. The additions are
very standard Broadway, with only occasional irony.
These actors are trying too hard to punch the lines, to
deliver them for the joke, for there to be a joke in them. Curry,
especially, seems incapable of being a straight man. Hyde Pierce is
inconsistent, but he's dealing with a character that varies from the old
Python earnestness to a modern Neil Simonesque funnyman persona, so its
harder to blame him. Azaria suffers a similar fate, and maybe comes
a little closer to the goal, but wanders weirdly from near-mimicry of the
original performers to odd variations. The non-"Names" in
the cast fare better, for varied reasons. Christopher Sieber, who
plays Dennis (turned inexplicably into Galahad, which sort of works), the
Black Knight, and Herbert's Dad, and Steve Rosen (Dennis' mother,
Bedevere, Concorde) put actual characters in play, and mine proper Python
humor from much of their parts (although the Black Knight pay-off only
works semi-well); Christian Borle (Historian, Herbert, et al) does
less well; Michael McGrath's Patsy is funny in a Shakespearean farce
kind of way (and probably matches what Terry Gilliam would have done with
a bigger part - but that's why he never had one). The major addition
to the cast, Sara Ramirez as the Lady of the Lake, is quite impressive as
the Broadway Cast Addition, but her humor is pretty anti-Python.
The songs are so-so, but that's no surprise - the
deadpan irony of the best Python songs is hard to extend to
musical-theatre dimensions. Here, the songs are semi-parodies of
Broadway "styles," and broad comic ditties, often funny (when
the lyrics could be understood, but more on that later) but not really
appropriate. The one from the movie ("We're Knights of the
Round Table...") is, for some reason, set in a Vegas casino version
of Camelot - that alone conveys a lot about the sensibility at work here.
The peripherals are what one would hope for from
Broadway - the sets are stunning and incredibly clever technologically,
the lighting excellent, the orchestra first-rate. Only the sound was
a problem, and that might have been more an enunciation issue than
something the crew could be blamed for. Most of the dialogue was
understandable (but then, I knew most of it), but song lyrics were often
very hard to make out.
I expect that there's enough here to keep this running
for a while, but I found it quite a disappointment, valuable mostly
because there's a certain cachet to having seen it. Today we're
going to watch the movie - time for the real thing.