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REVIEW: Python Rides Again in Spamalot (Ordway)

Kasidy Devlin (center) as Sir Robin in the national tour of Spamalot. Photo by Lance Evans.

Nerds and geeks of a certain age grew up with the British comedy group Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Python television shows were broadcast late at night on PBS, and by the next morning, we enchanted followers were repeating the comedy routines verbatim to one another.

Monty Python consisted of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam. Their original television series appeared on the BBC from 1969 to 1974. After the series came the movies, most notably Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). Holy Grail is the basis of Spamalot, a musical written by Eric Idle (with music by Idle and John Du Prez) that opened on Broadway in 2005.

Spamalot was nominated for 14 Tony Awards during its opening season, and won three, including Best Musical. The production’s national tour plays at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN through April 7.

Not familiar with the show? Spamalot follows the basic plot outline of Holy Grail:  King Arthur searches for knights for his Round Table, seeks the Holy Grail, and finds absurdity at every turn.  Many of the movie’s well-known quotables are included: a political critique of monarchy (“strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government!”), discussions of whether swallows could carry coconuts, the taunting by French soldiers (e.g., “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”), the peasant who is not quite dead yet, the Trojan Rabbit, the Black Knight who keeps fighting despite having lost all his limbs (“It’s only a flesh wound!”), the Knights Who Say Ni, Tim the Enchanter, the killer rabbit, and the Holy Hand Grenade. If none of these references mean anything to you, you need to see both the movie and the musical right away!

Because this is a tongue-in-cheek musical, some other Python tidbits that were not in Holy Grail are thrown in as well, including the fish-slapping dance, “say no more” (a reference to this), and Eric Idle’s famous song from Life of Brian, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. The title of the show is also a borrowing: Austin, Minnesota’s own Spam was the focus of a sketch and song on the original television show.

Believe it or not, the appearance of Minnesota’s own mystery meat in Spamalot is a canonical part of the show, not a localization. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The usual characteristics of Python routines also describe Spamalot: silly, absurd, intelligent, and nearing-the-border-line offensive.  On the last, consider the advice of “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”, where the continuation of the title line is “if you don’t have any Jews”.  Along the way, the show also offers plenty of insults for the English, the French, Finns, gays, non-gays, and divas.  The fun continues even in the program, which contains a mock summary of a production called Finns Ain’t What They Used to Be, with instructions to the audience “not to smoke or speak Swedish in the theatre.  Please use cell phones whenever possible.” [Editor’s note: Please don’t.]

Another distinctive Python touch is referring to and undermining the conventions of presentation.  On the original television show, comedy routines would often be interrupted by another performer saying that the sketch was not funny enough or was too offensive, or the like. In Spamalot, there is “The Song That Goes Like This”, which features Philip Huffman (as Sir Galahad) and Leslie Jackson (as the Lady of the Lake) singing lyrics like this:

Once in every show,
There comes a song like this,
It starts off soft and low,
And ends up with a kiss.

The lyrics progress, narrating the song’s own music, mirrored in hamming choreography:

Now we can go straight into the middle eight,
A bridge that is too far for me,
I’ll sing it in your face,
While we both embrace,
And then we change the key.

“The Diva’s Lament” is what it sounds like (“What ever happened to my part?”), and the Knights Who Say Ni in Spamalot now require (along with a shrubbery) that King Arthur (Steve McCoy) put on a Broadway Show.  He falls into despair at his inability to do so, until the Lady of the Lake tells him that he is already in one.  And they lived happily ever after.

Brian Bix