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Is 'Spamalot' digestible?

Tribune theater critic

A good time for Monty Python obsessives as well as the Python-indifferent, "Monty Python's Spamalot" shares much in common with Hormel's mysterious canned product, the one packed with chopped pork shoulder meat and a few other things. You're not entirely sure what it is, but you can enjoy it first and ask questions later.

This $11 million musical expansion of the 1975 film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," directed by Mike Nichols and continuing its pre-Broadway Shubert Theatre tryout through Jan. 23, spends roughly one-third of its two hour and 20 minute duration relying, agreeably, on the best bits from the movie. It spends one-third running after all sorts of musical theater styles and pastiche targets, ranging from Vegas flash to "West Side Story" (nobody said the jokes were up to date) to Andrew Lloyd Webber ballads. And it spends one-third paying slavish homage to Mel Brooks and "The Producers," right down to a "Fiddler on the Roof" bottle dance, done here with multiple holy grails atop multiple hats worn by a chorus line led by one of King Arthur's knights.

The song in question, "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," is sung by David Hyde Pierce, top-billed but far from the most vivid presence. He plays Sir Robin. His second-act quest has to do with finding some Jews to put into his Broadway show--don't ask--because without Jews, no chance on Broadway. If that sounds questionable in terms of taste, it is. Idle skirts the edge of patronization here. If that also sounds like a departure from the movie's plot, you're forgetting the movie had no plot.

With book and lyrics by Python co-founder Eric Idle and music by Idle and composer John Du Prez, "Spamalot" hits and misses for much of its first act but ultimately makes it home on sheer comic goodwill. It's nice to be in the hands of comic professionals, and "Spamalot" has a few. I liked it, even when it seemed to be the work of a bunch of highly talented Python fans re-enacting scenes from a cherished film and making up some highly variable songs to go with it.

Here's a surprise: Who knew Sara Ramirez was the lost Python member? Ramirez, who at one point sings a gag lyric about winning a Tony Award and may well end up with one, plays the Lady of the Lake, a mere mention in the film but a major addition here. Ramirez sings a wonderful fake-Lloyd Webber "Phantom of the Opera" duet with Christopher Sieber's wittily dashing Sir Dennis, who resembles a square jaw and flowing locks with a man attatched to them.

The premise of all this: King Arthur gathers knights as he roams about Britain, to form his round table. God hands unto them a mission: Find the grail. The musical's primary narrative addition is that God later instructs the lads to put on a Broadway musical, thereby bringing them closer to the grail. Or something.

Tim Curry plays Arthur in a big, broad, loosey-goosey style. I am in the Curry minority; I find his self-amusement and galumphing physicality on the grating side. But he is a presence and a personality you can rest a new, extremely silly musical upon. Hyde Pierce, who gets lost in the proceedings until midway through Act 2, plays a lot of smaller roles, as does the other, more prominently showcased top-liner, Hank Azaria. Azaria portrays a sexually ambiguous Lancelot and appears as the taunting Frenchman, among other well-known adversaries.

Many of the film's vignettes show up in "Spamalot" unmusicalized and very, very close to the originals: The limb-hacking encounter with the Black Knight, for example, or the brilliantly modulated double-talk routine with the two densest guards in the history of medieval guard-dom. Other scenes did not make the cut, among them the castle full of female spanking enthusiasts, or the scene on the Bridge of Death spanning the Gorge of Eternal Peril.

Some scenes from the film are here in musicalized form, such as "Burn Her!", an Act 1 witch-burning song, which happens also to be the show's low point. Du Prez and Idle click best with the '70s-style Lloyd Webberisms, heard in the fulsomely emotional "The Song That Goes Like This," or the anthemic "Find Your Grail," a "Let It Be" wannabe with such deathlessly inane lyrics as: "Do not fail/Find your grail/Find your grail/Find your grail."

Along with Ramirez, there's another ringer in the supporting ranks: Michael McGrath, a seasoned New York performer but not yet a star. He plays Patsy, the servant running around with the coconuts, and his fine eccentric dancing and stalwart singing are put to prime use on the "Life of Brian" tune, nicely interpolated, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." It's deeply catchy and it makes for a swell exit song, as well. Audiences many years into the future, I suspect, will be happy to sing along. (Tickets for the Chicago run are mighty scarce.)

Nichols directs this piece with a smooth and practiced hand, not too highbrow, not too lowbrow. It's not amazing musical comedy direction or anything, but then, "Spamalot" isn't an amazing musical comedy. It's more like the biggest, splashiest Oxford or Cambridge revue ever, with a nod to Vegas (at least two numbers are set there, for no reason), a little bit of Olde Muddy England, and a lot of "Forbidden Broadway Lite" in its "Phantom" spoofs and "Les Misérables" walk-ons.

Idle clearly has that old-fashioned lust for Broadway akin to that of Mel Brooks à la "The Producers." Few on this Earth know the sound of classic, pre-rock Broadway better than musical arranger Glen Kelly, who aided and abetted Brooks on his movie-turned-musical. Kelly does the same here with Idle and Du Prez. (It should be noted, even if the program barely does, that some of the music taken directly from the movie was written by Neil Innes, Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin.)

When Nichols was announced for this project, there was a fair amount of "huh?" in response. Even though he has made a storied career for himself, often adapting stage pieces for film and television--most memorably in recent years with "Wit" and "Angels in America" for HBO--his comic edge has softened a bit. Yet against the odds, "Spamalot" is an engaging blend of the extraordinarily faithful and the we'll-try-anything. Idle, Nichols, the cast and a design team deeply indebted to Terry Gilliam's Python animation style manage to tune into the same extremely silly wavelength.

The film had a priceless take-it-or-leave-it quality. The musical's more determined to get you to take it and like it, for better or worse. But that's how most musicals are.

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