It’s a gas!
Going beyond fart jokes in Monty Python-inspired musical
Monte Python fans will enjoy Chico State’s spring musical, Monty Python’s Spamalot, but so will anyone willing to tap into his or her irreverent, fart-joke-loving inner 12-year-old—and don’t we all love to go there sometimes?
Derived from the British comedy troupe’s 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the play is written by original Python Eric Idle, with lyrics by Idle and music by him and John Du Prez. First staged in 2005, the Tony Award-winning play adds song and dance—a lot of both, and nicely done here—to what in the movie is mostly a series of comedy sketches occasioned by King Arthur’s 10th-century search for the mythical chalice from the Last Supper.
Accompanied by his faithful squire, Patsy, and at times by anywhere from one to five knights of the Round Table, Arthur meanders from scene to scene, encountering all the oddball obstructions familiar from the movie (the killer rabbit, the taunting Frenchman, the Black Knight, the man who isn’t dead yet) and then some. The theatrical version adds yet another quest—for a Broadway musical, for which “you gotta have Jews”—that somehow takes the troupe to Las Vegas, in a “country that won’t exist for a thousand years.” Improbability is no obstacle for the Pythons; indeed, it’s their stock-in-trade.
There are 17 song-and-dance numbers altogether, and nearly as many set changes. Director Joel Rogers and scenic designer Daniel Schindler have stayed true to Python form, opting for low-budget scenery and props to go with the play’s low-brow humor—even letting this tack become part of the joking, as a painted scrim is referred to as “a very expensive forest.”
I watched a dress rehearsal on Monday, two days before the production’s Wednesday (April 30) opening in Laxson Auditorium. It’s not fair to review a rehearsal, especially of a musical comedy, since flaws are to be expected, casts need audiences in order to perform at a high level, and audiences need bodies in order to enjoy the humor because, of course, laughter is contagious.
But this rehearsal was terrific despite the obstacles, high-spirited and well done. Spamalot asks a lot of its players—that they can dance in several styles, sing a wide-ranging score and engage in rapid, joke-filled repartee—and this cast meets the challenge.
It’s led by the biggest scenery-chewer of the bunch, Ashley Garlick, who plays the Lady of the Lake and, late in the play, Guinevere. The role calls for a Liza Minelli-type diva, and Garlick delivers, singing up a storm as she sashays about the stage, flashing her baby blues and rolling her hips.
Arthur, Spamalot’s straight man, is played by Xander Ritchey as a would-be ruler who’s too easy-going to get his way all the time (though he does eventually find the grail, in a most unlikely place). His lack of rough edges and smooth singing voice carry the story forward in a frictionless way.
Patsy, Arthur’s squire, is an intriguing comic character, part jester, part thwarted lover (she has a crush on her boss, who is blind to it and, indeed, sings the mock-lamentation “I’m all alone” as she looks on in frustration). Philomena Block is terrific in the role, playing Patsy as, well, a patsy, but then breaking out in song with a powerfully expressive voice.
But this isn’t fair: I’m singling out these players only because they are in more scenes than anybody else, but the rest of the cast is just as good. This is a big production—there are nearly 30 performers, with several actors playing more than one role—and it is uniformly excellent.
That quality extends to the hundreds of costumes Sandy Barton has pulled together, the lively and complex choreography (by Rogers and Sheree Henning), and Rogers’ own musical direction (with a live orchestra conducted by Ryan Heimlich) in addition to his overall leadership.
There have been many great spring musicals at Chico State over the years. Spamalot is in that tradition. It’s a gas, and you don’t need to be 12 years old to enjoy it.