Never mind that "Spamalot" is based on a movie that's more than 40 years old -- it's still wonderfully wacky, silly and guaranteed to make you laugh. Eric Idle, founding member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python, based "Spamalot" on the troupe's hit movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" but also expanded on it to playfully satirize popular musicals and popular culture to the max. Palo Alto Players brings on its rendition with a talented cast and obvious glee, letting hilarity run amuck at the Lucie Stern Theatre.
Spoofing the famous Arthurian legends about brave knights rescuing damsels and pursuing the Holy Grail, "Spamalot" adds a number of random quests, like the challenge of finding a Shrubbery in a forest; or battling a fierce rabbit. Even the damsel-rescuing takes a decidedly different turn.
It starts simply enough, with a slight detour into Finland for "Fisch-Schlapping," when the ensemble mishears the Historian (Eric Borchers). He gets them back in the right country and soon we meet King Arthur (Michael Monagle) and his horse, er, servant, um, companion, Patsy (Joey McDaniel), "riding" in search of good men to become knights of the round table. There's a fun number about plague victims that garners Arthur two knights, Sir Robin (Josiah Frampton) and Sir Lancelot (Brad Satterwhite). Then he encounters two anti-establishment radicals, Dennis (Nick Kenrick) and his Mother (Chris Mahle), who refuse to believe Arthur is king. Arthur calls on his mentor, Lady of the Lake (Juliet Green), to prove his title, and she transforms Dennis into Sir Galahad. Soon after, they duet one of the most famous songs from the show, "The Song that Goes Like This," which spoofs romantic ballads while giving Green and Kenrick a showcase for their excellent voices.
Returning to Camelot (which suspiciously resembles a Vegas-style hotel and casino), Arthur and his new knights celebrate, only to be interrupted by God (Eric Idle himself, in recorded voice-over form) demanding that Arthur go in search of the Holy Grail. The search takes them around the world, and finally to France, where they are greeted by rude Frenchmen. And that's all you really need to know the rest unfolds in unpredictable, utterly silly fashion. You knew it would be like this from the fish-slapping. Nothing sacred, nothing that can't be spoofed and definitely nothing serious under the frivolity, except perhaps a caution against taking yourself or your cause too seriously. Patsy (Players' favorite McDaniel) gets to deliver perhaps the closest thing to a "message" in the show, when he encourages Arthur to "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."
There are Broadway-style musical numbers that just keep getting bigger and bigger, which are marvelous even as they spoof Broadway, and the ending is glorious madness, pulling out all the stops. The eight-person ensemble makes it feel like there's a cast of thousands -- well, at least 20 -- as they dance and romp their way through increasing insanity with endless energy.
All cast members except Arthur and Lady of the Lake double and triple their roles, and the ensemble must play even more. They're all having so much fun it's infectious, and one can't help but laugh at the inspired zaniness. As original Monty Python member John Cleese put it when asked about the show: "I think Spamalot turned out splendidly ... I defy anyone to go and not have a really fun evening. It's the silliest thing I've ever seen and I think Eric did a great job."
Kudos to Players director Andrew Ceglio, who also did much of the choreography, and to music director Katie Coleman. Tap choreography by Stephanie Bayer puts the cast through their time steps, and scenic designer Nikolaj Sorensen turns a giant castle into many castles, forests and villages with quick and amusing touches. Costumer Melissa Sanchez truly has a monumental task with so many different costumes per cast member, and mostly achieves it with aplomb. Lady of the Lake suffers a few questionable choices, but overall Sanchez created a great palette and consistency with minimal resources, including some whimsical touches (like Sir Robin's minstrels' shoes).
It was difficult to hear performers over the orchestra in the first half but balance was better in the second act. Scott Ludwig, properties designer, deserves an award for building an amazing cow, among a bazillion other props.
While Players' show may not rise to the comic virtuosity of the Broadway production, it makes up for it with boundless enthusiasm and energy. I was hoping for more updates and local color, given a political climate that begs to be spoofed, but was not disappointed with the humor overall. These are funny people, and their enjoyment on stage is contagious. If you love musical comedy (or even if you don't) you're sure to find "Spamalot" a worthwhile entertainment.
Freelance writer Jeanie K. Smith can be reached at [email protected]
What: "Spamalot," presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through May 14, with 7:30 p.m. shows Thursdays, 8 p.m. shows Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays
Info: Go to PA Players or call 650-329-0891