In the 1980s, when comedy was being proclaimed "the new rock 'n' roll," Monty Python's Flying Circus was an established supergroup. "Spamalot," spearheaded by the troupe's "Nudge, nudge" natterer Eric Idle, is largely a stage version of the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
But the show is also a sort of jukebox musical for comedy geeks, with all the "Holy Grail" hits ("I fart in your general direction!" "My name is Dennis!" "The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch") plus a few select numbers from other Python projects, such as Idle's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" song from "Life of Brian" and a short chorus of spam.
What better place to revisit "Spamalot" than a college campus in springtime? The Connecticut Repertory Theatre is presenting the madcap musical through Sunday, May 1, in the Harriet S. Jorgensen auditorium at UConn. You're in safe, silly hands here. I doubt that Python is as popular now as a few decades ago, when legions of fans could recite all the routines by rote.
When "Spamalot" made its debut on Broadway a decade ago, it featured a full lineup of comedy stars, replicating the range and breadth of the six-man Python troupe. CT Rep, which regularly casts professional actors in lead roles so that its student performers (from both the undergraduate and graduate theater programs) can learn from them, has enlisted two name stars: Richard Kline and Mariand Torres. Another pro, comic actor Richard Ruiz, directs the show.
Ruiz brings a spectacular sense of timing to the show. He knows when a joke has gone too far, and never lets one drag on.
Casting a stately older actor as King Arthur makes great sense, and makes for great nonsense. Kline, now in his '70s, was always admirably laid-back as the leisure-suited Larry in the sitcom "Three's Company" — a show which, as old it seems, actually first aired in 1977, three years after the final episode of the original Monty Python TV series. Those who recall Kline as Jeeves in the U.S. premiere of Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "By Jeeves," at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1996, will not be surprised at Kline's dry wit, imperious manner and crisp, clipped delivery.
Not only do the younger actors naturally defer to Kline, their impetuous, eager, hungry-young-actor spirit contrasts nicely with his lofty, reserved (though still ridiculous) manner. Kline also gets solid back-up from Gavin McNicoll as his ever-present, comically overlooked servant Patsy. Bryce Wood as Lancelot and Chester Martin as Galahad are the most lustrous and lunatic of the many knights.
For the lead female role The Lady in the Lake, CT Rep has gotten Torres, a well-traveled veteran of Broadway, regional theater and international tours. Torres sings divinely, but better yet, makes fun of her ability to sing divinely. Mocking vocal clichés from "American Idol" is a comedy bit that barely existed when "Spamalot" premiered in 2005. (Other gags of post-Python vintage include a "Royal Selfie Stick" and a placard that reads "Make Camelot Great Again!")
One could talk about the laughably bad British accents here — not funny enough on their own to excuse their lack of consistency and clarity — but they're honestly no worse than the Oxford- and Cambridge-educated Pythons' own attempts at mimicking the lower classes. Besides, these are classic comedy bits that most of the audience knows by heart, so sloppy speech patterns are irrelevant.
A more compelling problem is the lack of anything important for the women in the show to do. The Lady in the Lake has a song in the second act bemoaning "Whatever Happened to My Part?" but at least she gets to sing a whole song by herself. The two biggest female roles are given to Torres and to a male actor in drag (the admittedly deserving Zack Dictakis, who makes the most of his free-swinging bosom). Of the nine female students in the cast, only two get roles with names more prominent than "ensemble." One is Susannah Resnikoff as the leading "Knight Who Says Ni." The rest are relegated to being wenches, cheerleaders ("The Lady of the Lakers Girls") and peasants.
Some more creative cross-gender casting could have been entertained, but "Spamalot" still succeeds as the lunatic musical that's never too manly, strident or slapstick. The violent bits aren't too bloody. The jokes aren't overplayed. The orchestra plays loud and punchy. Lovely spam, wonderful spam.
THE CONNECTICUT REPERTORY THEATREproduction of "Monty Python's Spamalot," with book and lyrics by Eric Idle and music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle (based on the screenplay "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin), directed by Richard Ruiz with music direction by John Pike and choreography by Tom Kosis, runs through Sunday, May 1, at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Road, Storrs. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $7-$36. Information: 860-486-2113, crt.uconn.edu.