Spamalot, Eric Idle’s loving Broadway adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), has received almost uniform praise from the critics and theatergoers who were around for the film’s debut. No surprises there; this is a generation that could recite gags from the Arthurian parody verbatim, even without a musicalized refresher.
For original Monty Python fans, Spamalot is a sure source of knee-jerk laughs. The musical will most likely gain the approval of their younger kids, too, who can appreciate the fart jokes and showstoppers (though they will probably miss the subcutaneous layer of Broadway self-parody, like the Fiddler on the Roof bottle dance in “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway [if you don’t have any Jews]”) while taking a naughty thrill from the adult humor whizzing over their heads (the rearrangement of Camelot to “camel toe” ought to serve up good discussion material for the ride home).
But what about the in-between demographic, who didn’t grow up watching The Holy Grail as much as watching their parents quoting it? Python has some serious trickle-down value, for sure, but for the once-removed crowd, lazily leaning on the old jokes will probably not suffice.
There is no denying, Spamalot has its share of rote re-hashing. The older critics will be more charitable on this matter; the younger ones will not. King Arthur’s showdown with the inept yet farcically persistent Black Knight, or the 12-foot tall member of the Knights Who Say Ni — these don’t exactly cut it by today’s comedy standards, and they translate to the stage still worse.
In other moments, though, the play is pointedly fresh — the North American Touring company’s production, directed by Mike Nichols, even managed to work in a Santorum dropout reference — and its efforts to engage directly with the audience yield a high return.
“The grail — its beyond the fourth wall!” shouts Arthur, hopping into the audience not long after being informed by Guinevere, the self-aware play’s hamming diva, that he has in fact been in a Broadway production all along.
Effervescently campy (Idle’s signature penchant for drag takes full advantage of glittery Broadway costumery), silly yet sharp throughout, the play certainly belongs to an older generation of British comedy and plays parodic homage — but homage nonetheless — to an older generation of showbiz as well.
Nevertheless, Spamalot seemed to strike a chord with just about everyone — the chorus of whistles to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” on Muni Wednesday night testified to that.