NEW YORK – In 2004, Eric Idle moved from Chicago to Broadway to London, where coconuts clinked and knights chanted “Ni!” For those who follow the funny “Spamalot” movement closely. all the way to St. Petersburg, New York. Watching Broadway’s retro revival at the St. James Theater is a bit of an out-of-body experience.
You think no one would have the guts to do this show anymore, a giant Star of David coming down from there while “You Can’t Succeed on Broadway (Unless You Have Jews)” rolls around. flies. It takes a committee to approve (or disapprove) all the jokes about sex, homosexuality, Gauls, and Goyim, and it’s now impossible to imagine someone writing the immortal song: “It’s only a tiny percentage who like a dancing gentile.” So that’s not even true.
However, Idle, who teamed up with the funny yet emotional songwriter John Du Prez for the stage adaptation of the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, was closely following Mel Brooks’ monster hit “The Producers” and this movie He was determined to undertake it. he carries the same level of comedic risk as the master of satire, thus arguing that Britain’s Pythons are as fearless as Brooks when it comes to satire. The similarity between these two self-aware shows was remarkable at the time, and is still the case, but sillier and more anachronistic, “Spamalot” was always less bound by time and space, closer to the theater of the absurd. Both of these musicals were widely copied over the next two decades; This went down to Idle’s wild idea to stage an elaborate opening act in Finland, based on the assumption that the cast had misheard the word “England” in the opening narration.
The other difference (not foreseen by me to this extent) was that in 2004, people were much more likely to know and love this iconic film: the scenes recreating the Dark Knight losing his limbs, the Knights saying “Ni”. “I’m not dead yet”, the big rabbit, the “stop singing” joke and all the other classic skits were met with delight. In 2023, you hear a few familiar growls from the gray hairs in the background, but it’s also clear that at least half of the audience has never seen the movie, and even if they did, they’d find it very confusing. How the years flew by.
Frankly, I wish the Josh Rhodes-directed and choreographed reboot had taken a more open and different perspective, entered into a more interesting dialogue with the original production, and offered a deeper dive into the Python aesthetic. A necessary history lesson. There are times when the cast’s enthusiasm dampens the sandpaper-dry humor too much and even gets in the way of Du Prez and Idle’s lyrics. As an example, as entertaining as Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer is, Lady of the Lake would have had more laughs if it had focused on character first and foremost rather than vocal pyrotechnics.
The appearance of widely used video scenes on Paul Tate DePoo III’s unattractive set also hurts the show. Computer animation is rarely funny because we know programmers can do whatever they want, so there are never any real surprises; The Pythons were fundamentally similar in everything they did, and their material was much better represented this way through the pioneering use of cutout animation and stop-motion puppetry.
With all that said, I’ve loved this musical for a long time and don’t plan on letting it go as it gets older and more needy. Idle’s comic genius is on full display here, and he and Du Prez have come up with the kind of sassy, swirling score that screams Big Night on Broadway, even as it satirizes everything from scantily clad choruses to divas relegated to Act 2. And Idle’s philosophy, even based on a song he sang at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, is the ability to always look on the bright side of life, facing a world where such determination is not at all easy to achieve.
As always with this series, some members of this cast have a natural affinity for this material, especially the beyond hilarious Christopher Fitzgerald as Patsy. Michael Urie is also hilarious as Sir Robin, the knight who doesn’t care about the usual duties. Ethan Slater, fresh off the movie “Wicked,” was the right young actor cast as Prince Herbert. Both James Monroe Iglehart and Taran Killam anchor the plot firmly in the lead roles of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, but knowing what Igelhart is capable of, I wish he’d had more chances to get loose. He needed some fresh ingredients.
The new “Spamalot” looks to me to be more modestly scaled than the original, which will probably mean lower costs and hopefully a better chance of it not dying for a while. It’s an important piece of Broadway history there, and a tribute to how Idle was nothing short of all those funny years.
St. at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th St., New York; spamalotthemusical.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.