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When it comes to theater, summertime usually means Shakespeare in the Park and the odd assortment of off-season offerings. But in Hollywood, it means Broadway at the Bowl, the annual production of a musical classic thrown together in ten days and presented warts and all in the spirit of an impromptu barn show. In recent years, titles like Hair, Chicago and The Producers have taken a bow, starring the likes of Kristen Bell, Ashley Simpson and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who returns this year in Spamalot, Eric Idle’s delirious adaptation of the 1975 classic film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Equal parts inspired anarchy and Anglo stiff upper lip, this antic 2005 musical dovetails harmoniously with the thrown-together spirit of the mid-summer slot. While its best parts are the comic gems you remember from the movie, its worst parts, well, there are no worst parts, especially with names like Christian Slater, Craig Robinson and Idle himself joining the cast, marking the first time a member of the legendary comic troupe has performed in the show (albeit as the marginal character of the Historian), with fellow Python, Michael Palin lending a video assist as God on the LED screens.
As the lights dim, Idle enters wearing a domineering grimace, and dryly introduces the time and setting of the piece – England, which is mistaken for Finland, which prompts an opening salute (complete with Fisch Schlapping), to the wrong country. It’s a classic Python subversion employed throughout – an opening number that might set the time and place, sets an altogether unexpected time and place. Later, a query about the proprietor of an estate turns into a detailed discussion on weight ratios and swallows, while a simple question to a peasant leads to a Marxist deconstruction of the era’s social castes.
Scenic coordinator Joe Celli cleverly extends his toy castle set using projections on the band shell, which help to broaden a production that could easily be lost in the 17,000-seat venue. Best known for his work in movies like Hot Tub Time Machine and This Is the End, Robinson brings distracted nobility to the role of King Arthur, mixing one part pride with two parts moron. While his laid back persona translates to a calm earnestness that seems all the more ridiculous, his passably resonant baritone voice brings absurd pathos to “I Am Alone”, and he even manages to hold his own opposite the exquisite Merle Dandridge as the Lady of the Lake, reprising the role she played on Broadway.
Dandridge is the show’s one true voice, and she dazzles with her range in the meta-ballad, “The Song That Goes Like This”, and mesmerizes with a voice substantial enough to fill two Hollywood Bowls in “Diva’s Lament”, a clever lyric reminding the audience not to forget her, even if the playwright has.
As Galahad, Christian Slater isn’t new to musical theatre, having performed in Broadway productions of Merlin and Copperfield, as well as a revival of The Music Man back in the early eighties. Thirty years later, his singing voice is duly camouflaged among the ensemble, but his comic bits as a leftist peasant and later as Prince Herbert’s father easily conjure the effervescent hilarity of the movie.
When Mike Nichols was assembling his cast for the original Tony-winning production in 2005, he reportedly approached Jesse Tyler Ferguson who, after some struggle, chose to join the cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee instead. David Hyde Pierce wound up originating the role of the cowardly “Brave” Sir Robin although Ferguson is the right physical type for the part and exhibits the twitchy charm audiences of Modern Family have come to adore. His rendition of “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” about the importance of Jewish facilitators in showbiz, is a showstopper with its witty lyrics combined with Scott Taylor and Billy Sprague, Jr.’s Hebraic dance steps.
Read more: ‘Bent’: Theater Review
Director BT McNicholl fills out his cast with veterans like Warwick Davis (Willow) as Arthur’s sidekick, Patsy, a pint-sized performer who delivers an outstanding rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, a song that loses some irony when a chorus of crucified prisoners in the movie, The Life of Brian, is replaced by a line of knights on the stage. While pop culture references abound, including Lady Gaga, Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump and Bruno Mars, they’re not needed to generate laughs in a show this consistently hilarious.
Rick Holmes took over the role of Lancelot from Hank Azaria in the original production, wielding bravado and blunt wit as the insistently heroic knight who finds his gentler side when he rescues Prince Herbert from an arranged marriage. As the French Taunter, a foul-mouthed foreign soldier who rains down filthy epithets in a ridiculously thick accent, he delivers with the exhilarating inanity of a Tex Avery classic. His Tim the Enchanter is fittingly bizarre, but only half as much as his towering Knight of Ni.
As the Historian, Eric Idle enjoys little time on stage, but it is a rare treat to see him live in a Python classic. One of the troupe’s originators at Cambridge, he and his cohorts have brought tears of laughter to audiences for over 40 years with unique and witty comedy that’s always accessible. Idle and the rest of Python obviously take their work seriously, just not themselves, deflating pomposity and skewering social mores at every opportunity.
As for the impromptu nature of a musical assembled in only 10 days, Idle reportedly told his cast and crew: “It’s Python, not Shakespeare. If you don’t get it right, it doesn’t matter.” Truer words were never spoken. Even when it’s wrong, Spamalot is oh so right.
Cast: Eric Idle, Craig Robinson, Christian Slater, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Merle Dandridge, Kevin Chamberlin, Warwick Davis, Tom Deckman, Rick Holmes, Matt Steven Bauer, Venny Carranza, Jeremy Duvall, Marisa Field, Holly Cruickshank Ireland, Jamie Karen, Amanda Kloots, Gavin Lodge, Adrianna Rose Lyons, Katheryne Penny, Marco Ramos, Estevan Valdes
Director: BT McNicholl
Playwright: Eric Idle
Music and Lyrics: Eric Idle and John Du Prez
Choreographer: Scott Taylor and Billy Sprague, Jr., from original Casey Nicholaw
Lighting design: Tom Ruzika
Sound design: Philip G. Allen
Costume designer: Tim Hatley
Scenic coordinator: Joe Celli
Presented by the L.A. Philharmonic
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