Even the coconuts get entrance applause.
If you’ve seen “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the 1975 movie spoof of all things Arthurian and many things not, you know the coconuts I mean. And if you’re enough of a Python fan to have also seen “Spamalot,” the 2005 Broadway musical “lovingly ripped off” from the film, you’ve probably memorized the whole bit. That’s the one in which Arthur’s trusted patsy, Patsy, slaps coconut halves together so the deluded king can pretend he has a horse. Call it a filly à deux.
But the coconuts, whether or not they came to medieval England strung between two migratory African swallows, have stiff competition for beloved silliness in the blissful Broadway revival of “Spamalot” that opened on Thursday at the St. James Theater. They are by no means the only old favorites greeted with entrance applause. Among many others, so are a troupe of self-flagellating monks, a cart of corpses, a vulgar French taunter and a Trojan rabbit.
This is the problem, and I suppose the glory, of a property (or should I say a shrubbery) like “Spamalot,” by Eric Idle of the original troupe and the composer John Du Prez. Drilled deep into the culture through thousands of collegiate viewings, many of those viewings enhanced by once-illegal substances, the loosely assembled collection of skits has become holy writ, not to be messed with. If a production dared to change anything, it would surely face an audience of originalists screaming “ni!” — though to be fair, it faces them anyway, as “Spamalot” has become a kind of Python karaoke.
So what’s a revival to do?
This one, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, gives the “ni”-sayers what they want. As far as I can tell, the best original bits are all preserved verbatim.
Also preserved, obviously, is what passes for the plot, in which Arthur (James Monroe Iglehart) mucks about England with Patsy (Christopher Fitzgerald) in search of knights to sit at the “very round” table. Yet before the assembled half-wits can fully enjoy the Las Vegas floor show that is Camelot, God (Steve Martin in an uncredited voice-over) commands them to stop their tap dancing and shove off in search of the holy grail. Not everyone is impressed. “If God is all-knowing,” says the not-so-brave Sir Robin, who may be looking to avoid personal bloodshed, “surely He must know where it is.”
Though uttering the same lines as Idle did in the movie, and as David Hyde Pierce did in the 2005 production, Michael Urie as Robin puts a differently delightful comic spin on them. Throughout, Rhodes has encouraged the cast to personalize the material and, in many cases, enhance it. Taran Killam, expert as Lancelot and several of the quirkiest supporting characters, gives the French taunter not only the requisite outrageous accent but also a raspberry aria worthy of Mozart. In turn, when he sneers “I blow my nose at you, so-called Arthur-king, you and all your silly English knnnniggets,” Arthur and Sir Galahad (Nik Walker) do a brilliant triple take — they are Black.
Letting the clowns run the flying circus, at least part-time, is integral to the history of Python’s success. (Idle told The Times that the material survives because “it was written by its actors and acted by its writers.”) It is also a smart move for a show that could otherwise feel calcified; a production I saw at the Stratford Festival over the summer seemed more like an animatronic museum exhibit, making me doubt it was really revivable.
And even this mostly excellent production betrays a faint odor of mothballs, especially in the projection-heavy scenic design of Paul Tate dePoo III, so dependent on the feel of Terry Gilliam’s original animations. The key to the comedy is not after all replication but individuation. The Pythons were each their own kind of oddball, and the bits are only funny with fresh bite.
Another humor helper is authenticity. When Lancelot (who likes to dance a lot) comes to the rescue of a damsel in distress, and that damsel turns out to be a dopey prince named Herbert (Ethan Slater), the comics calibrate the exact middle point between snark and sincerity. (“Just think, Herbert,” says Lance as they kiss, “in a thousand years’ time this will still be controversial.”) The drag bits are likewise laughable yet honorable, as when Galahad’s blowzy mother, Mrs. Galahad (Jimmy Smagula), the recent widow of Nobby the Cretin, stands up proudly to Arthur: “I didn’t vote for you.” Equal-opportunity offensiveness — to gays, Jews, French, Finns and every kind of Briton — makes the show inoffensive to all.
Unless, that is, you are very sensitive about your addled divas in sparkly gowns. Among a cast of performers unafraid to chew scenery, Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer, as the Lady of the Lake, that “watery tart” who “lobbed a scimitar” at Arthur, is the top masticator. In some hilarious head space between Liza Minnelli and Celine Dion, scatting, belting and muttering private thoughts — including, on the night I saw it, ad-libs about Patti LuPone and Ozempic — she essentially steals the show despite her frequent absences from it. The first line of her big second-act number is “Whatever happened to my part?”
The revival leans into such meta-moments, which lean away from the movie and into a wonderland of Broadway self-reference. (Another snake-eating-its-tail song is “The Song That Goes Like This.”) Rhodes knows how to build these beautifully; they take off like roman candles. (Shield your eyes from the brightness of Cory Pattak’s lights and the dazzle of Jen Caprio’s costumes.) And if too many of the big numbers hit the same notes of too-muchness, Rhodes also lands the quiet ones gently, including “I’m All Alone,” in which Arthur laments his solitude while poor Patsy, fulfilling his name, stands next to him singing backup.
For all its nostalgia value, and its endless verbal invention, “Spamalot,” like “Holy Grail,” and like the television series that spawned them both, has a very vexed soul. Taunters are angry, the taunted suffer, royals trace their authority to “some moistened bint” and God sends horseless knights to locate misplaced cups. It’s not a nice world out there in the Middle Ages — or ours. Luckily, vexations are evergreen if given half a chance, and, at least on Broadway, are assuageable. Just remember to always look on the bright side of life. And that supposedly harmless bunnies aren’t.
At the St. James Theater, Manhattan; spamalotthemusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.