NEW YORK — For those of us who closely watched Eric Idle’s hilarious “Spamalot” move from Chicago to Broadway to London in 2004, coconuts clicking and knights saying “Ni!” all the way, watching the retro Broadway revival at the St. James Theatre in New York is a bit of an out-of-body experience.
No one would have the guts to do this show now, you keep thinking, as the boffo number “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (if You Don’t Have Any Jews)” rolls around, a massive Star of David descending from the flies. It would take a committee to approve (or disapprove) all the gags about gender, gayness, Gauls and goyim and it’s impossible to imagine someone would now write the immortal lyric, “It’s just a small percentile who enjoys a dancing Gentile.” I mean, it’s not even true.
But Idle, who teamed up with the droll and yet emotional songwriter John Du Prez for his stage adaptation of the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” was following hard upon Mel Brooks’ monster hit “The Producers” and was determined to take the same level of comedic risk as that satirical master, thereby arguing that Britain’s Pythons were as fearless as Brooks when it came to satire. The similarity between these two self-aware shows was notable at the time and that’s still the case, although the sillier and more anachronistic “Spamalot” always was less confined by time and space, closer to theater of the absurd. Both of these musicals were widely copied over the following two decades, up to and including Idle’s bonkers idea of staging an entire elaborate opening number in Finland on the premise that the cast has misheard “England” in the opening narration.
The other difference (unanticipated by me to this extent) is that in 2004, people were far more likely to know and love the iconic movie: the recreated scenes with the Black Knight who loses his limbs, the Knights Who Say “Ni,” the “I’m not dead yet,” the big rabbit, the “stop singing” shtick and all the other classic sketches were met with joy. In 2023, you get a few grunts of recognition from the gray hairs in the back but it’s also clear that at least half of the audience has never seen the film and would find it mighty perplexing if they did. My, how the years have flown.
Frankly, I wish the revival, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, had more of an explicit and distinct point of view, put itself in more interesting conversation with the original production and offered a deeper dive into the Python aesthetic, maybe as a bit of a necessary history lesson. There are times when the cast’s exuberance adds too much moisture to the sandpaper-dry humor and even gets in the way of Du Prez and Idle’s lyrics. As one example, Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer, fun as she is, would get more laughs if her Lady of the Lake focused first and foremost on the character, rather than the vocal pyrotechnics.
The advent of video scenery, extensively used in Paul Tate DePoo III’s unappealing set, also hurts the show. Computer animation rarely scores laughs because we know it can do anything programmers want, so there is never true surprise; the Pythons were fundamentally analog in everything they did and their material, with its pioneering use of cutout animation and stop-motion puppetry, is much better represented in that fashion.
All that said, I’ve long loved this musical and I don’t plan to abandon it as it ages out and becomes more needy. Idle’s comic genius remains entirely evident here and he and Du Prez came up with the kind of brassy, swirling score that screamed Big Night Out on Broadway, even as it lampooned everything from scantily clad choruses to divas devolving in Act 2. And the Idle philosophy of always looking on the bright side of life, from a song he even got to sing in the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, has met a world where such a determination is hardly any easier to make.
As ever with this show, some members of this cast just have a natural affinity for this material, especially the hilarious beyond hilarious Christopher Fitzgerald as Patsy. Michael Urie is also very funny as Sir Robin, the knight who cares not for the customary duties. Ethan Slater, fresh from the “Wicked” movie, was the right youthful addition as Prince Herbert. In the lead roles of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, both James Monroe Iglehart and Taran Killam anchor the affair solidly, although given what we know Igelhart can do, I wish he had more chances to cut loose. He needed some fresh material.
The new “Spamalot” looks to me more modestly scaled than the original, which presumably will mean lower costs, giving it a better chance of not being dead yet, hopefully for a while. That’s an important bit of Broadway history up there and a tribute to Idle being anything but, all these funny years.
At the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th St., New York; spamalotthemusical.com.