Hey. You there, audience member. I want you to listen very closely to what I’m going to say.
Your mother was a hamster.
Now let’s gauge your reaction. Did you:
1) Immediately turn to the person nearest you — whether good friend or total stranger — and without hesitation, as if by Pavlovian response, blurt out “and your father smelt of elderberries”?
2) Offer a quizzical but hearty laugh, a little lost as to the context of the line but willing to extend your comic goodwill to such an offbeat non sequitur?
3) Listen with stone-faced bewilderment, trying to grasp at anything — anything! — remotely funny about someone declaring that the woman who bore you was a Eurasian rodent with large cheek pouches and a short tail — but finding yourself unable to cough up anything but a desultory chuckle?
If you’re in the first camp, you’ll likely react to the zany and well-done new Good Company Players production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” like a starving dieter granted permission to tear into a lemon meringue pie. If you fall into the second category, I’m guessing you’ll be happy to hop aboard and raft the comic whitewaters of this very silly and engaging musical.
And if you just don’t get the whole Monty Python phenomenon — and you don’t want to get it — you might, like the famed Black Knight, rather have your limbs chopped off one by one than subject yourself to an evening featuring some of the most famous bits of the Python legacy.
This GCP local premiere, which continues through March 17 at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, is amiable and smartly staged, and it features some of the company’s comic veterans in top form. Perhaps the greatest thing going for it is the intimacy of the space. Sure, some of the famous sight gags have to be scaled back. But director Laurie Pessano and scenic designer David Pierce came up with some ingenious ways to deliver the visual moments that any self-respecting Python fan would demand. The creative team might not have a way to toss a cow 50 feet off a castle turret. But the cow still flies, never fear.
For the uninitiated, “Monty Python’s Spamlot” is loosely based on the British comedy troupe’s best-loved movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” After a brief start in Finland — whoops, it’s supposed to be England! — we’re plunged into the merry quest of King Arthur (a rousing Chris Carsten) and the quest he’s given by the ethereal Lady of the Lake (Emily Pessano in wonderful comic form). As he bumbles along with his personal valet, Patsy (a well-played Steve Souza, who obligingly claps coconuts together to imitate a horse’s hooves, a motif from the movie reenacted to this day by many children in our own realm), Arthur gathers together his knights of the Round Table. With detours along the way to such spots Camelot, which looks a lot like Las Vegas, and the forest of the Knights of Ni, the gags come at a rapid clip.
Why does the humor from a 1975 movie still work? Heck if I know. I think part of it is simply that the Python gang’s jokes and situations are so weird — and so drily delivered — that they’ve remained stuck in people’s brains for all these years, then reinforced through repetition, which has given them a sort of cultural currency. Nostalgia is a big part of it, too. This is the kind of thing that parents pass down to their kids. I’ve talked with enough young fans — and watched them throng the national tour of “Spamalot” that came to the Saroyan Theatre last year — to realize that the second Python generation is robust, indeed.
And while the humor is incredibly silly, it also has a peculiar intellectual heft. Really. When the argumentative Sir Galahad (a droll Teddy Maldonado) starts quibbling with Arthur about the merits of a monarchy, it isn’t just for a quick joke. Eric Idle’s book lets Sir Galahad prattle on with an extended argument that sounds like something an enthusiastic college freshman would disgorge after a pretentious political philosophy class. The character gets precious time on stage to allow the material to breathe and the laughs to percolate.
Even if the M.P. world view isn’t exactly your cup of tea, the gregarious “Spamalot” also works on another level: that of a warm musical satire, with a very nice score by Idle and John Du Prez. The GCP cast has some great vocal and acting moments. Highlights include Carsten’s first-rate Arthur, Emily Pessano’s wry Lady of the Lake, Greg Grannis’ over-the-top Sir Robin, Daniel Hernandez’s deadpan-slash-fizzy Lancelot and Brandon Delsid’s hilarious Not Dead Fred. Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costume design is outstanding as it ranges from destitute peasants and sturdy knights to Las Vegas-style glitz.
This “Spamlot” is to be commended for advancing Good Company’s use of projected animation, which is obviously an ongoing theatrical trend. Dominic Grijalva’s animation design pays homage to the Python style while offering some creative jolts of his own.
Overall, it’s a very complicated show with numerous settings and lots of deft technical timing required. The opening night performance was not the smoothest GCP production I’ve seen in terms of the technical side of things. There were some lighting glitches and sound issues with the balance between singers and the recorded track. (I know, for example, that Emily Pessano’s voice can fill the Roger Rocka’s space with a lot more gusto than it did in the version I heard of “The Song That Goes Like This.”) Jennifer Sullivan’s lighting design is mostly effective, but transitions between animation and live action needed to be slicker, and I was mystified by the murkiness of the crucial Black Knight scene. Also, the cast seemed a bit tentative on the complicated blocking of such big numbers as “The Knights of the Round Table.” But I’m convinced these were early jitters and that ensuing performances in the run will brim with confidence.
As for my own “Python” history, I’d say I fall somewhere between the first and second categories with which I introduced this review. I laughed earlier (and louder) than some in the audience as the familiar gags and songs unfolded. My guess is there will be a chunk of season-ticket holders at each performance who tend to fall more into the third category I detailed. Depending on the mix of each audience, that could be a challenge for the cast. But I’m also sure this production will attract die-hard fans whose energy will boost the crowd.
When it comes to my biggest laughs, on opening night there was one big personal surprise for me, which was a lot of fun. But for sheer excellent lunacy, I have to go with the head French Taunter (a sublime Tyler Branco, a GCP veteran who gets a standout, breakthrough moment in this show.) He’s just so, well, French. Go ahead. Call my mom a hamster. I’m still laughing.
Pictured: Emily Pessano and Chris Carsten lead the cast of “Spamalot.” Bee photo by Gary Kazanjian. For a gallery of more images, click here.