Monday, October 28, 2013

Spamalot Is Great Fun For Fans

By Sharon Falduto
Photos by Jackie Jensen at IC Pixx

King Arthur (Rip Russell) and his knights
Coralville—I consider myself very lucky to be a resident of Coralville. I can see Broadway shows, presented in the beautiful Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, by just driving a couple miles down the road (even if I do have to add in a few blocks of a detour to 6th Avenue).

It was my privilege to see and review opening night of City Circle Acting Company of Coralville’s Spamalot, which was the show’s Eastern Iowa premiere. I’ve loved the music of the show ever since a friend loaned me a CD of the Tony Award winning 2004 musical. I planned to get tickets to the touring production at Hancher but, well, that plan was washed out by the flood of 2008.

The musical follows the movie of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and some bits create the laughter of recognition before the scene even begins. When a cart full of plague victims rolls through, the audience anticipates that someone will soon announce that he is in fact, Not Quite Dead--and the always appealing Doug Beardsley as “Not Dead Fred” does not disappoint. He can, in fact, dance a jig and a highland fling, just as the song promises. The “Knights Who Say ‘Ni’” were another group who caused titillation in the crowd before the first “Ni” was uttered.

Our local actors and musicians are quite talented. Rip Russell was excellently cast as King Arthur, puffed out in chest and strong in voice, with a regal bearing befitting a king. “That was a king!” remarks one sentry to another. “How can you tell?” “Because he’s not covered in s**t!”

His faithful companion and second banana Patsy, played by Brett Borden, stole the show as the character who WAS perhaps covered in s**t, both physically and metaphorically, as when he stands, ignored, within three feet of Arthur’s solo lament “I’m All Alone.” His crestfallen face perfectly portrayed the overlooked servant. Borden made the excellent foil to Arthur’s blustery king. Where Arthur was strong footed and straight backed, Patsy had the bent over gait of a man who is all too accustomed to carrying the needs and wants of a king.

The first act of Spamalot focuses on Arthur gathering his Knights of the Round Table. Rob Keech is Sir Lancelot, who bravely volunteers to fight with Arthur’s army. Isaac Helgens is Sir Robin, the not-quite-as-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, who follows along mostly hoping for the chance to dance and sing. Rob Kemp’s Sir Galahad is introduced as a socialist worker; astounded to be ruled by a king, and arguing that Arthur’s claim to Kinghood is questionable--a woman in a lake told him to be king? “Soggy Blondes in Ponds is no basis for a government!”--but when Arthur summons the Lady of the Lake to prove that she’s real, Galahad joins the group of knights. Kemp’s vain, golden haired Galahad was a favorite of the round table crew. Largely silent Sir Bedevere, played by Jeff Emrich, rounds out this cast of characters.

Surprisingly, Sir Lancelot’s role did not include a solo number, which was a shame, as Rob Keech was engaging to watch as he fumbled for the correct word. “Thingy...where you save someone...from grave danger?” “Rescue, sir?”

Sarah Blakeslee as the Lady of the Lake
As Lady of the Lake, Sarah Blakeslee is an astounding actress and singer, able to reach notes both high and low with excellent clarity and conviction. She also provides the precise amount of cheesy over-acting for this particular show. The Lady of the Lake is a fun character, whose signature tune is “The Song That Goes Like This,” a number that sends up the tropes of a musical by announcing “Once in every show, there comes a song like this, that starts off soft and low, and ends up with a kiss…..” Unfortunately, her part in the second act becomes a bit less defined; a fact which she herself calls out in the “Diva’s Lament”: “Whatever happened to my part?”

Krista Neuman’s able direction shone throughout the show. For instance, amusing bits of business kept the show moving along. The passage of time is noted by having a character announce “fall!” and throwing leaves on stage, then “winter!” and throwing snow. Perhaps no bit of business more perfectly encapsulates the humor of the show than Patsy clacking coconuts together to approximate the sound of the imaginary horse Arthur is riding. Another particularly enjoyable pantomime scene showed each character’s defining flaw: Galahad vainly playing with his hair, Robin preparing to run away in fear, Lancelot fighting bravely and violently, and Sir Bedevere, the oddly flatulent, waving the gaseous fumes away from his backside.

Jill Beardsley’s costumes were defining and hilarious--Sir Robin, the not quite as brave, had a chicken emblazoned on his tunic; Sir Bedevere wore a ridiculously large black helmet, I suppose to protect himself from his own smell. The shields and helmets of various characters were expertly created by Roger Phelps, who was also wonderful in the small role of Tim the Enchanter.

The musical is very funny, and a treat to watch, but I felt the book of the musical suffered from second act problems. Isaac Helgens performed an excellent solo in act 2, explaining that the cast will never succeed on Broadway “if they don’t have any Jews.” Unfortunately, the song falls flat. Possibly hilarious in New York, it doesn’t play in Peoria, as they say... or Coralville, for that matter. Following that, Sir Lancelot invades a castle expecting to rescue a princess. Instead, he discovers Ben Alley’s effeminate Prince Herbert. Alley is an engaging performer and his father, played by John Smick, is funny in the role of the disappointed father. But what follows is a song that questions Lance’s sexuality, which, while presented in good fun and without rancor, still becomes an exercise in painting broad stereotypes for the benefit of an easy laugh. I expect better from original Python member Eric Idle, a writer who helped contribute some of the great comic lines of our times. The subtle nuance of the French Taunter’s insults: “your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!” are a much better example of the ludicrous wit of the Python set.

As the five knights were the main secondary group of characters in the show, backing King Arthur, Patsy, and the Lady of the Lake, I found it an odd directorial choice that they would occasionally appear as members of the ensemble, or even with speaking roles--notably, when Isaac Helgens appeared as a guard for Prince Herbert, it seemed as though perhaps when the Round Table knights were separated, he picked up a job at Herbert’s castle.

But those are small quibbles. All your favorite bits from The Holy Grail are included in this hilarious show. They even throw in a song from another Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is another song that adds a depth of humor and whimsy to the already hilarious piece. If you’re a Monty Python fan, you will love this show.

Spamalot runs one more weekend at the CCPA; tickets available here. Don't forget to bring your canned goods (Spam or otherwise!) to support the Coralville Ecumenical Food Pantry and be entered for a chance to win tickets to City Circle's next production, A Christmas Carol.

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