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Toby's production of 'Spamalot' has a lot to offer [Review]

By Mike Giuliano

6:15 AM EST, January 31, 2014

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If you want to laugh a lot, go see "Spamalot" at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia. It's a fast-paced production that makes the most of its jokes thanks to a talented cast whose timing is as sharp as the medieval knights' swords.

This 2005 Broadway musical is loosely derived from the 1975 movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which in turn has only the loosest interest in being faithful to what life was like during the Middle Ages.

The show's gleeful disregard for historical accuracy includes knights hatching a Trojan horse-type scheme to get inside the enemy's castle walls. Rather than use a wooden horse, they use an enormous wooden rabbit. And knights battling on the field often give way to choreography with Las Vegas-style showgirls.

For the record, the wildly episodic story is set in 932 A.D. While assembling the crew of misfits who will be his knights, King Arthur sometimes pauses to ask himself such existential questions as: "Why are we called the Middle Ages when nothing comes after us?"

One of the great pleasures of this production is Lawrence B. Munsey's swaggering performance as the self-important King Arthur. Whether barking orders or singing in a comparably bossy voice, Munsey commands your attention.

There's also delightful comic business between King Arthur and his vaudeville-suitable servant, Patsy (Jeffrey Shankle), who emulates the sound of a horse by tapping coconut shells together. It's a low-tech way to generate a high laugh count.

The king and his sidekick encounter all sorts of strange things on their quest to assemble the knights and then search for the Holy Grail. Incidentally, some of the Holy Grail-pursuing knights wonder why they're making such a fuss about a cup.

King Arthur and his unruly entourage show off their tightly coordinated singing and dancing in such ensemble numbers as "Knights of the Round Table" and "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

Much credit goes to director and choreographer Mark Minnick, as well as to musical director Ross Scott Rawlings, for ensuring that the loose comedy and riotous production numbers are delivered in a very disciplined manner.

That kind of discipline also comes across in the individual performances by the large supporting cast. Although this show encourages cartoonishly broad characterizations, they're carefully handled and don't simply coast on caricature.

A case in point is Priscilla Cuellar as the glamorously enigmatic Lady of the Lake. This character wears exotic gowns and does a good bit of comic vamping. However, Cuellar also has a powerful singing voice that's impressively unleashed in "Come with Me," "The Song That Goes Like This" and "The Diva's Lament."

Other performers are notable for undertaking multiple roles that call on them to be funny in varied ways.

Daving Jennings, for instance, plays Sir Lancelot, The French Taunter, King Ni and Tim the Enchanter.

The eclectic roles performed by David James are as an historian, a nun, a French guard, a minstrel, Prince Herbert, and Not Dead Fred. Where the last-mentioned character is concerned, Not Dead Fred is part of a chorus of plague victims that sings "I Am Not Dead Yet."

Among others in the cast playing multiple roles are Darren McDonnell, Nick Lehan and Shawn Kettering. Their performances enliven Monty Python's insanely revisionist look at life during the Middle Ages.

"Spamalot" runs through March 23 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.