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LET THEM EAT SPAM

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- It's the Titan vs. Tiny. The $11 million blockbuster vs. the $3.5 million off-Broadway transfer. A cast of 22 vs. a cast of nine (plus four audience volunteers).

Once again, the battle for best musical at tonight's Tony Awards ceremony (8 p.m.-11 p.m., WJZ-Channel 13) is predicted to be a showdown between a leviathan and a scrappy little guy.

Last year, the best-musical competition pitted Wicked, the favorite, against Avenue Q, the underdog. Avenue Q won. This year, Monty Python's Spamalot is the one to beat, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee just might be the show to do it.

For all of their differences, Spamalot and Spelling Bee do have a few things in common. Chief among these is a spoofing, irreverent tone and overall sense of silliness, traits that have been wildly popular on Broadway ever since The Producers danced off with a record 12 Tonys four years ago.

In addition, like Spelling Bee, Spamalot features audience participation, although to a lesser extent. Still, both shows give theatergoers a chance not only to attend a hot, new musical, but also to appear in it.

Whichever show wins, audiences around the country will probably get an opportunity to see it in their hometown. That's because all four nominees for best musical -- the others are The Light in the Piazza and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -- already have announced plans for national tours.

In so doing, they are distancing themselves from the example of Avenue Q, which broke the hearts of presenters at theaters on the road when it announced, only days after copping the Tony, that it would forgo a national tour in favor of a long-term engagement in Las Vegas.

Here's a closer look at the contenders.

'Spamalot'

Spamalot wastes no time getting around to wisecracking. The flippancy begins on the title page of the Playbill, which proclaims that the show is "lovingly ripped off" from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The 1975 movie, created by the former British comedy troupe Monty Python, uses the quest for the Holy Grail by King Arthur and his knights as the thread connecting a series of skits. The film has been a cult favorite for three decades, and a recent visit to the Broadway production proved that members of the cult are flocking in droves -- guffawing at the jokes, even before the punch lines.

Eric Idle, the original Python member who wrote the book and lyrics (and co-wrote the music with John Du Prez), has said that the success of The Producers encouraged him to adapt The Holy Grail for the stage. Following The Producers' example, Idle, along with director Mike Nichols and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, liberally peppers Spamalot with satirical references to other Broadway shows.

For instance, the stage show corrects a lapse in the film by adding a major female character -- the Lady of the Lake. Though mentioned only in passing in the movie, on stage she's a sort of medieval muse / diva, as well as the eventual love interest of Tim Curry's King Arthur. Her signature number, "The Song That Goes Like This," is a parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber's overblown romantic ballads. And, in case anyone fails to make the connection, the syrupy song is sung by big-voiced Sara Ramirez's Lady and Christopher Sieber's Sir Galahad while propelling themselves in a Phantom of the Opera-style boat, underneath a chandelier.

Another alteration in the plot is an additional task for the knights -- they must create a musical and take it to Broadway. This leads to a Fiddler on the Roof spoof, led by David Hyde Pierce's cowardly Sir Robin, who breaks into a full-fledged production number informing his fellow knights that "You Won't Succeed on Broadway (if you don't have any Jews)."

Other Broadway allusions range from The Boy from Oz to Dame Edna (in an audience-participation ending that, in true Edna fashion, involves snapping a Polaroid of the participant).

The pitch-perfect actors are clearly having a ball, and their unbridled joy carries over into the more-than-willing audience. Having already won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards, as well as racking up the largest number of Tony nominations (14) this season, Spamalot will probably capture the Holy Grail tonight. Whether material that delights the cults of Python and Broadway will "play in Peoria," however, remains to be seen.

'Spelling Bee'

Playing in Peoria shouldn't be a problem for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. After all, the show is basically set in Peoria (OK, it's actually Putnam County in an unspecified state, but the small-town aura is the same). That aura is enhanced by Beowulf Boritt's environmental set, which turns the theater into a school gymnasium, complete with basketball hoop and banners bearing such accolades as "1989 State Middle School Football Honorable Mention."

A bona fide little-musical-that-could, the show started as a sketch by a small New York improv group. Broadway composer William Finn (Falsettos) subsequently turned it into a musical, which made its debut in Sheffield, Mass., before landing off-Broadway (under James Lapine's direction) and then transferring to Broadway in the spring.

Rachel Sheinkin's script has the distinction of being the only original book among this season's nominees for best musical. (Spamalot and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are both adapted from movies and The Light in the Piazza is adapted from a novel.) The plot is simple -- a real-time competition among a half-dozen pubescent brainiacs (portrayed by adult actors), augmented by four audience members.

The six main competitors are all stereotypes, and in most cases, their nerdiness is accentuated by a bizarre trait. The fat kid (Dan Fogler) spells with one of his feet; the hippie kid (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) goes into a semi-trance with each word; and the Boy Scout (Jose Llana) is a victim of uncontrollable hormones. Besides their time at the contest microphone, each character gets a moment in the spotlight to sing about hopes and fears.

It's rather endearing stuff and undeniably familiar to anyone who ever: 1) attended school, 2) felt like an outsider, or 3) went through adolescence. In other words, audience identification is a given.

The competition element is also a built-in crowd-pleaser. A concept that gives theatergoers a chance to root for their favorites, it has a strong Broadway precedent in A Chorus Line and a pop cultural precedent in American Idol.

But pleasing as Spelling Bee may be, it's also extremely lightweight -- too lightweight to truly deserve the best-musical title in what was one of the strongest seasons for new musicals (count 'em: 11) in some time.

'Scoundrels,' 'Piazza'

So what of the other two competitors? Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, based on the 1988 con-man movie, is a good, old-fashioned musical with thoroughly enjoyable performances by lead actors John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz. It also has a tuneful score by David Yazbek, who made his Broadway debut with The Full Monty. But, just as that congenial show got trounced by The Producers (ironically, another musical about con men) in 2001, so, in all likelihood, will Dirty Rotten Scoundrels be lost in the wake of Spamalot.

As to The Light in the Piazza, if the Tony voters have discerning ears, this dark horse will take home the award for best score. Adam Guettel's music and lyrics for Piazza -- a tale of a mother and daughter on vacation in Italy -- are lushly romantic and sophisticated. Although the show's overall sophistication will probably knock it out of the running for top honors, Guettel's achievement is a notable one. And, by giving this glorious score the recognition it deserves, Tony voters will help ensure that there's still a place for challenging musical fare on Broadway.

Top nominees

Play

Democracy

Doubt

Gem of the Ocean

The Pillowman

Musical

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The Light in the Piazza

Spamalot

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Lead actor, play

Philip Bosco,

Twelve Angry Men

Billy Crudup,

The Pillowman

Bill Irwin, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

James Earl Jones,

On Golden Pond

Brian F. O'Byrne, Doubt

Lead actress, play

Cherry Jones, Doubt

Laura Linney, Sight Unseen

Mary-Louise Parker,

Reckless

Phylicia Rashad,

Gem of the Ocean

Kathleen Turner, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Lead actor, musical

Hank Azaria, Spamalot

Gary Beach,

La Cage aux Folles

Norbert Leo Butz,

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Tim Curry, Spamalot

John Lithgow,

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Lead actress, musical

Christina Applegate,

Sweet Charity

Victoria Clark,

The Light in the Piazza

Erin Dilly,

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Sutton Foster,

Little Women

Sherie Rene Scott,

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Revival, play

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Glengarry Glen Ross

On Golden Pond

Twelve Angry Men

Revival, musical

La Cage aux Folles

Pacific Overtures

Sweet Charity

Special theatrical event

Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance!

Laugh Whore

700 Sundays

Whoopi, the 20th

Anniversary Show

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