Spamming It opens on Broadway tonight and it’s safe to say that the Middle Ages hasn’t been this fun since, well, last time Lots of spam opened on Broadway almost 20 years ago. Perfectly cast and brilliantly performed, and with Josh Rhodes’ deceptively no-frills direction (and choreography) placing compelling events front and center, the revival has lost none of the clever and silly charm of either the original musical or its great source of inspiration – the beloved 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
You certainly don’t have to be one of many Grail acolytes who can quote snippets of dialogue from greatest hits (“It’s just a skin wound” or “Bring out your dead!”) or who start laughing moments before the Killer Rabbit actually shows his face (and what a face), but die-hards will be as pleased as newbies with this highly entertaining revival.
Written by Python Eric Idle (book and lyrics), with music by Idle and John Du Prez (and Brian’s life“Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” thrown in for good measure) Spamming is one of the few recent film-to-stage adaptations that makes a strong case for the practice.
With most of the cast returning to their roles from their well-received, sold-out performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Spamming boasts one of the best bands currently performing on Broadway. Most of the actors play multiple roles, but some are randomly chosen and stand out: Christopher Fitzgerald as the lovable, smarter-than-hey squire; Ethan Slater as a dewy-eyed guy in distress; Michael Urie as the cowardly Sir Robin, who would rather sing; Nik Walker as the intellectual peasant turned vain knight Sir Galahad; James Monroe Iglehart as the steadfast, slow King Arthur; Jimmy Smagula as Sir Bedevere and, more funnily, Dennis’ Mother; and, best of all, Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer (who similarly stole Beetle Juice) as the Lady of the Lake and herself, breaking the fourth wall to complain (in song, of course) about those long stretches when she is not on stage.
Also worth noting: the excellent Taran Killam, replacing Alex Brightman until January, who played the role at the Kennedy Center but is currently occupied by a Broadway theater The shark is broken. The Killam years are over Saturday Night Live make him a natural for Python escapades, and he beautifully portrays each of his characters, from the sexually confused Lancelot to the Knight of Ni and the sneering Frenchman.
While the music is very close to the film, Idle and Du Prez wisely chose to allow it Spamming the characters joke: they know they’re in a Broadway musical. “The Song That Goes Like This” has great fun poking at Broadway musical conventions, and Kritzer stops the show, literally and figuratively, with “Diva’s Lament,” the one in which he laments his skimpy role (and calls out Michael Urie for killing time).
Urie has his own meta moment in the gripping performance of “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway,” in which his musical theater aficionado Sir Robin advises the King about an essential element of Broadway success: “You just can’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have Jews.” Providing something of a crash course in the history of Broadway and the essential role Jewish creators have played in it, Urie leads the cast through some Violinist moments and shout-outs to Streisand, Midler, Sondheim and, well, I won’t reveal the punch line, except to note that it elicited both gasps and laughs during the performance under review.
All the dancing, singing and searching takes place on a clever, attractive backdrop designed by Paul Tate dePoo III, whose projections – many seemingly inspired by Terry Gilliam’s instantly recognizable Python animation style – play a key role in the production. Some of the effects have a decidedly (and intentionally) DIY feel, like a catapulted (or rather just thrown) cow and a bloodthirsty bunny, but they all work brilliantly within the show’s self-aware approach.
Also worthy of praise are Jen Caprio’s colorful costumes, Cory Pattak’s playful lighting, and Kai Harada and Haley Parcher’s sound design, which uses volume to create jump-in-your-seat moments. (By the way, this voice of God was recorded by none other than Steve Martin in good company).
Perhaps the most satisfying Spamming it differs from other film and stage adaptations in that it hits every punchline, even for those who know what’s coming. Recent adaptations such as Almost famous and all the better Back to the future treat your famous jokes like a checklist you have to go through. Not so with Spammingwhen even that long-ago Python saying “It’s just a scratch” is met with applause and, more importantly, loud, bloody laughter.
Premises: St. Theater James on Broadway
Director and choreographer: Josh Rhodes
Book and texts: Eric Idle
Music: John Du Prez and Eric Idle
Main cast: Christopher Fitzgerald, James Monroe Iglehart, Taran Killam, Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer, Ethan Slater, Jimmy Smagula, Michael Urie and Nik Walker.
Duration: 2 hours. 20 min (with break)