May 23, 2024

It may be appropriate for a musical with “spam” in the title to feel canned. But it’s a shame that the first Broadway revival of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” now playing at the St. James Theatre, struggles to find anything fresh about material covered in a half-century of dust.

A comedy broader than a bowling alley, “Spamalot” premiered on Broadway in 2005, 30 years after the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” from which the creators say it is “lovingly ripped off.” The British troupe’s devotion to wordplay, absurdity and bodily function was vintage even then. Like a pile of corpses that bursts into song, some tenants of comedy never die. But they do lose their vigor.

Director and choreographer Josh Rhodes’ production, which originated at the Kennedy Center this spring, is more frenzied regurgitation than reinvention, opting at every turn for showy bells and whistles over original interpretation. The result suggests insecurity about whether the show holds up when what we need is an argument that it does.

Aside from a few timely winks to TikTok and Ozempic, the book and lyrics by Monty Python vet Eric Idle (who collaborated on the music with John Du Prez) leans heavily on nostalgia for various layers of IP dating all the way back to the fifth century. The action is set on the heels of a plague, but any resonance with the present seems purely incidental. 

A meta parody of Arthurian heroism and showbiz conventions, “Spamalot” is an accumulation of bits, propelled by giddy vibes rather than an actual plot. It’s almost an hour in before God tasks King Arthur (James Monroe Iglehart) “to set an example to people in these dark times” by finding the Holy Grail, or metaphorically, what fulfills his soul (or something?). He is, of course, joined by a band of bumbling knights, and intermittently by the Lady of the Lake (Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer), whose vanity is stretched into a thin, repeated punchline. 

Among an impressive lineup of reliable talent, some performers fare better than others. Taran Killam, an “SNL” alum, is a riot, bringing vocal panache to a variety of roles in which he’s visible only from the neck up (his blowing of raspberries as a mustachioed Frenchman may be the best line in the show). Michael Urie lends an elastic face and sing-songy intonations to Sir Robin, and Ethan Slater’s dexterous physical humor, as a French mime, an effete prince and a naked puppeteer, is always welcome. If only Christopher Fitzgerald had much more to do than click together coconuts. 

Though Arthur is the comedy’s straight man, Iglehart can seem like he’s not in on the joke, and frankly a bit lost, while Kritzer alternately pushes too hard or retreats from a role that demands overassurance. (None of the performances benefit from a memory of the original production, directed by Mike Nichols, whose stars included Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce and a breakout Sara Ramirez.) 

The physical staging is a dizzying sensory overload, to the point that even obvious sight gags (severed limbs, a beheaded rabbit puppet) get lost in the chaos. The set, which resembles a pop-up storybook on the bottom and a frenetic video game overhead, feels uneasy and overdone, with gaudy animation adding unnecessary spectacle (the scenic and projection design is by Paul Tate dePoo III). The costumes by Jen Caprio take an all-you-can-fasten approach to accents including fur, fringe, feathers, flowers, bells, bows and beads — sometimes in a single look.

The production’s overdesign is a symptom of the broader problem, which is a lack of ingenuity in favor of sheer excess. It is a paradox of throwing money onstage that it can easily come at the expense of creativity. There may be a way to reanimate “Spamalot,” and for Monty Python’s random surrealism to infect a new generation and confront the current moment. But that grail is not to be found here.

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