It should not be surprising that at some point in the middle of Monty Python’s Spamalot an audience member shouted out the next line while the actor took a pause.
“Shrubbery” was the punchline.
Monty Python aficionados love to recite these famous routines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (with a Life of Brian song thrown in for good measure). It underlines that the musical is built on a lot of audience familiarity and pre-existing goodwill. But this projection heavy production from director-choreographer Josh Rhodes shows its age. For some, maybe reliving this material in a new form is fun, but it left me bored.
The plot starts out as King Arthur (James Monroe Iglehart) looking to recruit his Knights of the Round Table, it eventually devolves into a mishmash about having to put on a Broadway musical, a thing that had not yet been invented. Arthur gets his power from Excalibur, a sword given to him from The Lady in the Lake (Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer). Dennis Galahad (Nik Walker) joins the crew, followed by the cowardly Robin (Michael Urie), the brave Lancelot (Taran Killam), and the flatulent Bedevere (Jimmy Smagula). King Arthur is accompanied by his dedicated servant, Patsy (Christopher Fitzgerald).
Spamlot just feels like a musical built for another era. 70s British comedy, writ through a 2000s musical machine, it shows up in 2023 without any rhyme or reason except seemingly nostalgia. This production makes some desperate attempts at updates, but its baked-in perspective is just so archaic and not a little smarmy.
It needlessly tosses in a bunch of cheerleaders and Vegas showgirls (a retrograde move and feels extra boorish here in a musical with one barely named female character), and the big joke with the Lady in the Lake is that her role is not big enough. No argument there. New jokes about George Santos, Ozempic, and TikTok are just trying too hard to make old material “relevant” and they are not funny.
Musicals can, of course, be pastiche. Here, it just underlines the show’s emptiness when you make musical theater references to better shows. It left me wondering if this is supposed to be a show for people who like musicals and get the other musical references or for people who do not like musicals and what they do not know won’t hurt them because it’s coming packaged in Monty Python form. But even the Python gags run out of steam and with little narrative purpose, the second act drags.
Even though they have assembled a terrific cast of comedic actors the material does not spring to life, unlike the not-quite-dead-yet corpses in the show.
I found Taran Killan dull as dishwater (though he handled his audience shrubbery heckle well–or is that a bit?). James Monroe Iglehart is likeable but without much to do. Michael Urie hams it up in the best possible way but he is more fun to watch in better material. Leslie Kritzer is chewing up the scenery as she is supposed to do but for the love of god give her a real meaty role in a better musical. She’s too good for this.
Thinking back on my friends who used to recite Monty Python in high school, I was reminded of how much fun the original material played with language and felt outside the mainstream. For a moment, when Dennis is lecturing King Arthur on the questionable basis to which he claims power there is a frisson of real political critique, particularly in this current moment. Nik Walker is not playing it for laughs, the material is both funny and sharp, and its quite exciting. But that early scene is long forgotten and that anti-authoritarian energy and linguistic wittiness is lost behind meaningless songs, a wall of cartoonish projections and underwhelming costumes (save the Bob Mackie-inspired slinky numbers for Kritzer).
This parody musical was not built for actual rigorous political satire but the distance between the power of that scene and the whimper of the rest was disappointing.
I will give them that the prop cow hurled over the castle walls was very plush and looked like it could kill a man. I maybe longed for it to be thrown in my general direction.