Four Seasons’ ‘Spamalot’ brings the sunshine
For nearly half a century now, the absurdity of a Monty Python sketch has been the perfect antidote to the troubling craziness of our world—and given how batshit insane the world is at the current moment, Four Seasons Theater’s decision to stage “Spamalot,” the 2005 Tony-winning musical that rips and riffs on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, seems like particularly canny stroke of zeitgeist genius. Political demagogues and ever-mounting racial tensions seem somehow less scary when you’re watching people sing, dance around and slap each other in the face with fish.
The show, penned by Python stalwart Eric Idle, borrows the bulk of its spoken dialogue from the 1975 classic, which means more time with discussions about the likelihood of migrating coconuts and the aerodynamics of African and European swallows—never, ever a bad thing.
Most of the songs are designed to caustically tweak the conventions of Broadway musicals—numbers like “The Song That Goes like This,” a song that finds Christian Smith-Kotlarek’s manly Sir Galahad and Samantha Sostarich’s diva-esque Lady of the Lake deconstructing the beats of the stereotypically sweeping romantic anthem. Both of them have powerful soaring voices, making this one of the show’s high points. Later in the show/quest, when Arthur learns the former Knights of Ni will require him to stage a Broadway musical, the foppish Sir Robin (Andy White) helpfully clues him in with “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” a number that suggests the show will flop unless it includes (gasp!) Jews. “Monty Python” always had even less use for political correctness than the current Republican presidential nominee.
Four Seasons has a long-standing rep for pulling together strong casts for its shows, and just like the *actual* King Arthur, Director Brian Cowing’s production collects a round table of powerful vocalists that make many of the numbers pop. As Arthur, Doug Swenson does a great job of capturing the Briton king’s mixture of entitlement, exasperation and cluelessness, and it doesn’t hurt that he bears a strong resemblance to Graham Chapman, who played the role in the 1975 film. Many of the show’s numbers are variations on the same stagey song-and-dance special, but several cast members make great impressions in multiple minor roles. Robert A. Goderich goes daffily distaff as Galahad’s blowsy mom, then seriously stoic as Concorde, Lancelot’s erudite, arrow-studded servant. Sam Taylor swipes an early number as Not Dead Fred, a corpse who’d rather not end up on the meat wagon, and again in act two as Prince Herbert, the effeminate dude-in-distress with a song always on his lips.
Suffice to say there’s a lot to laugh at—and sing along with. However, not everything about this comic/legendary quest is a rah-rah rousing success. The interchange between the knights and the saucy French soldiers (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!”), one of the absolute classic bits from the movie, loses a little of its oomph in the pitch and rapid-fire pace of Jordan Peterson’s delivery. It’s odd, given that Peterson’s also rocking a thick Scottish accent as the closeted Sir Lancelot, and a high-pitched whine as the lead Knight of Ni, both tasks he handles with more grace and comprehensibility.
The enormous portcullis gate that cuts the stage in half, meanwhile, proves a mixed blessing. It’s a clever effect that re-emphasizes the whole Arthurian castle vibe, but the gate’s lattice pattern distorts and blocks out a lot of the Pythonesque animated images that get projected onto it, deadening the comic effects. The projection effect works a million times better when the gate’s absent and the images are appearing on the clear scrim at the back of the stage, or on the trees of the Very Expensive Forest Arthur and his long-suffering servant Patsy (a crowd-pleasing Joel Roberts) get lost in.
Nancy Horns’ costume designs are a blast, particularly the Lady’s ’80s-esque gold-plated cornrow wig and the getup for Tim the Enchanter (Peterson again), which looks exactly as you remember it from the film. Props to director Cowing for shoehorning in a Hamilton joke and some Madison-specific references—but are TV Lenny and Charlie Shortino really the most contempo local cultural touchstones? Also, callouts to Isthmus and the Cap Times and not Madison Magazine in Sir Robin’s big number? You’re killing us, guys.
Ruffled feathers aside, Four Seasons’ production of “Spamalot” is exactly what you hope it’ll be—a two-hour plus escape into sheer, sunny silliness. There’s a reason Eric Idle lifted “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” to serve as the musical centerpiece of “Spamalot.” As the streamers rain down into the audience, you’ll have a hard time not endorsing the choice.
“Spamalot” runs through this Sunday, August 7. For tickets, click here.