Saturday, January 25, 2014

Spamalot a Silly, Silly Production

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Von Presley Studios

Megan Anderson as The Lady of the Lake
Cedar Rapids - Of the many musicals based on movies that have been trotted out on stage in the last couple decades, Spamalot is one of the best adaptations. There are a couple reasons for this: first, Eric Idle, who wrote the book and lyrics (and worked with John Du Prez on the music), has gobs of experience recycling old jokes for new audiences. Second, the source material isn't really a narrative film with a steady plotline like The Producers or even Young Frankenstein; it's a collection of sketches loosely based around the King Arthur legend that ultimately goes nowhere (if you recall, they don't ever find the Holy Grail in the Grail film; the most famous project from everyone's favorite comic anarchists ends with the police arresting Arthur's crew, including the camera operator). As such, it's ripe for ripping apart and stitching together in a new form: a larger-than-life Broadway musical, where everyone's favorite skits and gags can mingle with some brand-new material that is just as hilarious.

TCR's production, playing now through February 15th, is quite effective. It's everything a musical comedy should be: big, energetic, and funny. It's obvious that they're having a blast, and it's just as obvious that they've put a lot of work into it. It's easy with a piece like this to fall into the trap of just quoting lines, but all the scenework is thoughtful and dedicated. Leslie Charipar's direction keeps the comedy coming, and there are some great bits of banter as well as some hilarious visual gags.

The costumes, lovingly ripped off from Tim Hatley's original design - actually, lovingly ripped off of the original actors, as these rented costumes were used in the original West End production - are wonderful. They're colorful, striking, and full of subtle (and not-so-subtle) gags. They're an improvement, in places, on the original film; Python members have gone on record complaining about odd design choices such as Michael Palin's giant helmet as the speaker for the Knights Who Say "Ni," which covered up any facial expression he could make. On stage, Casey Prince's helmet is wide open and we can see all the funny stuff he is doing. There are also a lot of great ensemble gags with the costumes, as when the doors of the French castle open to reveal an anachronistic set of French people from different periods of history.

The ensemble is excellent, working well together and creating lots of fun character moments. Highlights include Cameron Byrd's over-the-top preacher and Gregg Smith's historian with the stiff upper lip - but Ken Van Egdon takes the cake with his hilarious rendition of the abusive Frenchman who mercilessly taunts our heroes. Everyone supports each other and throws themselves into their performance, and it's a hoot to watch.

Aaron Canterbury's choreography is clever and energetic. There are times when the stage does seem a little bare, as in the beginning of "Knights of the Round Table" and "You Won't Succeed on Broadway;" both these numbers seem like they build very slowly. However, there is a good payoff in both cases, especially the end of "You Won't Succeed on Broadway." There was a bit of oddness in the second act, when there was some tapdancing with no tap shoes; it was unclear whether this was a choreography issue or a costume one.

Megan Anderson as the Lady of the Lake, Jon Day as King
Arthur, and Adam Burnham as Patsy.
There were also some problems with the mics of the principals, and the sound mix in general. Near the beginning, the Lady of the Lake's mic went out more than once, which was quite a shame, because Megan Anderson was doing some very nuanced singing, full of jazzy embellishment and excessive riffs and runs. She takes this style to a comic extreme, and her diva-esque attitude punctuates the character quite well. Anderson is very skillful in singing some rather difficult songs, and very smart about making some careful choices to amp up the comedy.

Adam Burnham (who plays Patsy) and Jon Day (King Arthur) are paired well. Burnham plays off of Day's dry wit and aloof arrogance with his deadpan gestures and precise comic timing. There are moments when Patsy threatens to steal the show, but what's most impressive is how much of a team player Burnham is; often a simple motion, very genuine and in-the-moment, can add some great texture to an already funny set piece.

This is a very funny show performed by a very funny cast. Whether you're a die-hard Python fan or this is your first fish-slapping dance, you'll find something to laugh about in Spamalot. The show runs at TCR through February 15; tickets here.

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