Thursday, July 17, 2008

SPAMALOT, Live on Stage with Killer Rabbits, Nitwit Knights, Stephen Collins & Marin Mazzie (plus a bit of ye olde Fish Slapping Dance)


In Monty Python’s Spamalot, a doltish King Arthur (Stephen Collins) leads his newly recruited Knights of the Round Table ("we dance when we're able") on a quest for the Holy Grail, which takes them to a Vegas-like Camelot, a forest with the shrieky Knights Who Say "Ni!," a castle guarded by a taunting Frenchman ("I blow my nose at you!"), and the strange land of Broadway (embodied by the Shubert Theatre, where Spamalot is in its fourth year).

Along the way, water nymphs become cheerleading Laker Girls, a creaky cartful of corpses turns into a jaunty chorus, enormous­­­ cartoon feet herald the arrival of a cranky God (voiced by John Cleese) and a giant wooden rabbit on wheels precedes the appearance of a homicidal, sock puppet rabbit.

Inspired by the 1974 cult film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," Spamalot is the addled brainchild of Python Eric Idle, who wrote the musical’s book and lyrics and collaborated on the music with John Du Prez. When it debuted in 2005, it won a trio of Tony Awards, including Best Musical and, a Best Director trophy for the estimable Mike Nichols.

"I always love when Mike comes to talk to us," said Marin Mazzie, who plays the Lady of the Lake, the "watery wench" who bestows the sword Excalibur upon Arthur. "He's an actor, he's a comedian, so he knows how to play this stuff. He tells us that we're playing reality, not parody. If you play reality, it's funny. If you play parody, not so funny." And Spamalot is nothing if not funny: silly funny, cleverly funny, deliriously over-the-top funny.

Castwise, Collins, an Emmy-winner for “7th Heaven,” and Drew Lachey (“Dancing with the Stars”), who plays Arthur’s coconut-clacking sidekick, Patsy, are among the show’s latest arrivals. Mazzie recently rejoined the New York company after a stint with the London cast and, paradoxically, an appearance as Guenevere in the New York Philharmonic's concert version of Camelot at Lincoln Center. The New York Times said her "singing was luminous" and "her portrayal grew stronger as the story grew darker."

In Spamalot, Mazzie’s luminous voice veers down a much zanier path, particularly during the Lady of the Lake’s hissy fit of a number delivered after spending too much time in the wings.

"Whatever happened to my part?" she sings, creating a diva's divine madness with her vocal dexterity. "It was exciting at the start. Now we're halfway through Act Two. And I've had nothing yet to do."

Mazzie, a three-time Tony nominee (for Kiss Me, Kate, Ragtime and Passion), said that her decision to go the full Monty was prompted by a desire to do something different on Broadway. "I hadn't done anything so out there," she said. "And it gave me a chance to work with Mike."

She now holds the distinction of playing opposite three Spamalot King Arthurs (Collins, Jonathan Hadary and Peter Davison). "Each one brings his own personality, strengths and sense of humor to the character," she said. "And nothing is added to accommodate each new king. Sometimes it seems like we're making it up, but we're tightly scripted."

She also knows how the New York and London audiences react to the story of a legendary British monarch whom Idle has turned into a winsome fool.“New York audiences are much more vocal and boisterous, but the London audiences love it just as much, if not more,” she said, adding, “The British get everything -- there’s continuous tittering going on. It’s their culture. The Python guys are staples there. Many people here know ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus,’ but many don't. But you don't have to know Python to appreciate the show.”

Monty Python’s Spamalot is currently playing (emphasis on “play”) at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre,
225 W. 44th St. For reservations (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) call 212-239-6200. [Note: If you plan on
seeing the Fish Slapping Dance, I urge you to arrive on time: it comes early in the show and, sadly, does not reprise.]