September 6 CNY Playhouse: Spamalot

Spamalot CNY Playhouse

Photo by Amelia Beamish

CNY Playhouse’s ‘Spamalot’ draws laughter galore — and every Monty Python fan in town

The area’s newest theater troupe mounts the first local production of this whacky Broadway megahit, and gets it (mostly) right

By Laurel Saiz

Judging from the reaction of the near-capacity crowd at Friday’s opening night performance, Central New York Playhouse’s current production of Spamalot, directed by Dustin Czarny, just may be the hottest ticket in town.

Central New York Playhouse, one of the area’s newest local theater companies, is the first to secure the rights to Spamalot — the 2005 Broadway megahit that ran for 1,575 performances and garnered three Tony awards including Best Musical, Best Director and Best Actress. Spamalot, of course, was “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture” Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the wacky 1975 film by the absurdist British comedy troupe that had inspired a cult-like following. Add real Central New York theater royalty to those champions of offbeat comedy and you have the makings of a local Broadway-caliber hit.

Bob Brown, famous for his multiple years playing Jesus in Salt City Performing Arts Center’s annual production of Jesus Christ Superstar, steps in as King Arthur. Joining him as the Lady of the Lake is his real-life wife, Kathleen O’Brien Brown — well regarded by local audiences and a veteran of national and international musical theater touring troupes. Several other actors in the cast might not be as well-known as someone who has played Jesus Christ some two-dozen 24 times, but they deserve to be knighted themselves for their spot-on performances in this production.

Simon Moody does yeoman’s work as Patsy. He literally does yeoman’s work, as that word is defined as “a servant in a royal or noble household, ranking between a sergeant and a groom or a squire and a page.” Poor Patsy is ever by King Arthur’s side, trotting and galloping through the byways of England, albeit by helpfully providing the clip-clop noises of horses’ hooves with coconut shells hung around his neck. A hilarious exchange about the incongruity of the coconut shells is one of the first comic bits in Act One.

Moody’s experience as a Shakespearean actor (Falstaff and Titus Andronicus) is supremely evident as he transforms a lowly servant into a noble character. One of the best and most genuinely moving songs of the evening was the duet I’m All Alone. The audience had deepest sympathies for Arthur’s stalwart, yet overlooked companion.

Another standout was Jon Wilson, an actor and director with multiple credits in Central New York theater companies. Here, he is not only the stage manager but also deigns to play a hapless plague victim in the first act I’m Not Yet Dead in and — even more hysterically funny — the lovelorn Prince Herbert in the second act. To say that Prince Herbert doesn’t live up to his father’s expectations as a brave, manly Prince would be an exaggeration. We first see Prince Herbert in a blonde curly wig and white nightgown, pining for love with the song Where Are You?, sung in a delicate falsetto. His next number, Here Are You, alludes to the fact that he does find his true love. (The revelation is so, so funny — but no spoilers here.)

Trevor F. Hill as Sir Robin has an incredible voice and a commanding stage presence, although his character is known for wetting himself in battle. Less commanding was Alan D. Stillman as Sir Lancelot. Lancelot has always been the handsome, captivating and romantic knight of the Arthur legend and the Camelot Broadway musical and film. It’s true that the Python gang has a different take on Lancelot, but Stillman’s casting is perplexing since he appears more like a character actor intent on playing a darker role.

Stephen Tampa was excellent as Sir Dennis Galahad. (I bet you didn’t know his first name was Dennis!) He and the Lady of the Lake have perhaps my favorite song in the show: The Song That Goes Like This. At any point in a Broadway musical, the audience expects a lyrical song with both a crescendo and a little love interest. That’s exactly what this song delivers — in a droll, tongue-in-cheek fashion.

The biggest show-stopping numbers are admirably performed by O’Brien Brown. The Lady of the Lake exhorts King Arthur’s men to Find Your Grail, the Act I closer. Her voice reaches to the heights and she attempts to do so physically as well, thrusting her arm upward with a silver bejeweled chalice. The fact that the Central New York Playhouse’s performing space is a converted store is evident by the limitations at the climax of this number, when she grazes the rafters.

Integral to the rich, live sound of the production is a seven-piece orchestra led by music director Abel Searor. Unfortunately, the weak delivery of several cast members could not compete with the orchestra in several numbers. Josh Taylor’s recitation as the Historian about the various locales of England was very difficult to hear: “England, 932 A.D. A kingdom divided. To the West, the Anglo-Saxons. To the East, the French. Above, nothing but Celts and some people from Scotland.” (I know what he told us only because I have memorized the Broadway cast recording CD.)

Likewise, the rather sick humor of the lyrics of Brave Sir Robin was mostly lost because the cast members’ voices often did not project. How brave was Sir Robin? “He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp. Or to have his eyes gouged out and his elbows broken.” The litany of abuse gets more extreme and ridiculous, but it was very difficult to follow what the minstrels were singing in this production.

As to the sick humor in this song, I must say that I’m not a fan of any of the Monty Python movies or the British television skits now readily available on YouTube. Many of the references in Spamalot don’t do much for me. The killer rabbit for example seems incongruous, but not hilarious. The Knights Who Say Ni and the Dark Knight with his severed limbs don’t really evoke laughter from me.

Likewise, another song is funny in an uncomfortable way. A new addition to the musical, not taken from the original film, is You Won’t Succeed On Broadway, which satirizes one particular demographic group in the New York City metropolitan area. I found it mildly offensive when I saw it in the Shubert Theater and it seems more woefully out of place now.

Before the show started, a couple seated near me said they had seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail at least 100 times. As I walked through the theater I heard another member of the audience say he knew all the skits by heart, including the aforementioned Knights Who Say Ni, killer rabbit and Black Knight. Spamalot draws on a huge number of Monty Python fans. It’s also a major Broadway musical, new to local theater in this region.

The current Central New York Playhouse production boasts an overall strong cast, a good set, great costumes and wonderful live music. But better get your tickets now: It’s sure to sell out.

Details Box:
WhatSpamalot, book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle
Who: Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY
Performance reviewed: Friday, September 6
Remaining performances: Plays through September 21
Length:  About two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets:  $20 and $25. Dinner and a show tickets on Saturday nights, $39.95.
Call: 315-885-8960 or http://www.cnyplayhouse.com
Family guide: Nothing objectionable