The King to the Queen

Python comes alive; a jukebox musicals scores; Genet’s worthy script

If you love Monty Python, you will fall in love with “Spamalot,” no two ways about it.

The Pythons’ inspired and intelligent silliness had me from the moment I discovered it in the late 1970s, and I can still laugh till I cry over such things as “Knights who say ‘Ni,” and lines like “I fart in your general direction.”

Don’t ask for an explanation, but I haven’t laughed as hard or as long or so enjoyed myself with such abandon at a musical since “The Producers.”

The two are very different, and “Spamalot” is more an extended vaudeville than a traditional musical. It is a series of sketches lightly strung together by a retelling of the Arthurian legend, the search for the Holy Grail and the very grail-like quest of success on Broadway.

If you know the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” there will be precious few surprises here, but the sheer joy of revisiting favorite comic bits and seeing this humor brought to life with such excitement and good humor makes this show completely irresistible from beginning to end. The book, lyrics and music are by Eric Idle, with help on the music by John DuPrez, and it’s everything you expect, from inconceivably silly situations, delicious non-sequiturs and songs that are a loving pastiche of Broadway, Vegas and pop music.

The satire is biting but laid on gently, and everything from the baleful syrup of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s music to gay marriage gets a swipe. It’s all done with an unbridled sense of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” that lets us know they know just what’s up with all the silliness. Camelot here is more like Excalibur, the Vegas hotel, and forests are billed as “very expensive,” and there are projections and animation that will be familiar to Python fans. No doubt it was expensive. It would have to be to look so sumptuous, thanks to Tim Hatley’s sets and costumes.

The songs are all fun, and among my favorites are “The Song that Goes Like This,” which sends up “Phantom of the Opera,” complete with a boat and malfunctioning light fixture; “Find Your Grail,” a Celine-esque inspirational belt; “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” borrowed from the Python film “The Life of Brian”; and “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” which suggests that Jews are the secret to theatrical success.

It’s all delivered by a stellar cast under the wonderful direction of Mike Nichols who, not surprisingly given his comedic bona fides, gets the inherent absurdity of the whole business. Tim Curry is marvelous as King Arthur, both ridiculous and charming, particularly when, surrounded by a chorus, he sings, “I’m All Alone.” Hank Azaria is dazzling in a variety of roles, and obviously having the time of his life. His vocal tricks and comic timing are dead-on. David Hyde Pierce is wonderful in a variety of roles as well—from the absurdly silly to the deliciously deadpan, he can stop the show with just the raise of an eyebrow. Christopher Sieber as Sir Galahad and in several other roles is terrific as well.

Yet, whenever Sara Ramirez as The Lady of the Lake is onstage, you forget everyone else. She simply walks off with the show. A sensational comedienne with an electrifying presence, she also stops the show with “The Diva’s Lament,” which is pure Python—the point at which anyone who doesn’t get it finally boils over. It’s a tour de force performance that elevates Ms. Ramirez to the league of great Broadway comediennes.

The laughs keep coming right through the final moment of the curtain call, and this is a joyful, deliriously funny show that is truly the bright side of Broadway.

Well, I’ll be darned if they didn’t pull it off and create a fresh, lively and thoroughly entertaining musical out of “All Shook Up.” I chose not to say “damned,” since from sexuality to pelvis rotation, this Elvis-inspired show is softened to a decided family-friendly level. Nonetheless, I had a blast. And you will, too, if you ask nothing more of this show than a rollicking good time.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Even Shakespeare knew the value of escapist comedy, and the show’s book writer Joe DiPietro has cleverly borrowed from the quintessential plot borrower to create another take on the familiar story of a stranger who comes to town and helps people discover the joys of living. There are mistaken identities, cross-dressing, and misdirected love—in short all the tools that from ancient Thebes to contemporary New York have kept people rolling in the aisles. Predictable or not, these devices have been around so long because the work—and they still do, if you’re willing just to go with it.

Set in the 1950s in the Midwest, the show draws on the Elvis songbook for its score. Unlike others of these so-called “jukebox musicals” that are all the rage right now, the songs fit the show dramatically without seeming forced. The only exception is “Jailhouse Rock,” which comes out of nowhere, but the creators get a pass because it’s a great homage to the movie, and what Elvis show could not include that song?

As orchestrated for Broadway by Michael Gibson and Stephen Oremus, the songs fit the musical genre very well, which is a nice surprise. An Elvis purist might cavil, but then he or she can also stay home. Remember, folks, this is supposed to be fun.

The wonderfully talented cast fills the Palace Theatre with their exuberance and charm. More than talent, though, there is a technical proficiency in the singing and movement that’s exemplary even for Broadway. This may be a foot-tapping good time for the audience, but there’s a lot of hard work going on onstage.

The principals are terrific. Cheyenne Williams as Chad the stranger is a perfect blend of Elvis, James Dean and a runaway from a modern boy band. His easy charm and broad comedy––particularly when he thinks he’s fallen in love with grease monkey Natalie who becomes “Ed” to be his buddy––are infectious. Jenn Gambatese as Natalie/Ed has a powerful voice, great timing and a hard-edged charm that works for the role. Mark Price is great as Dennis, the nebbish who loves Natalie and becomes Chad’s sidekick pro tem, and Nikki M. James and Curtis Holbrook are delightful as Lorraine and Dean. The plot requires them to find acceptance as a mixed-race couple in the Midwest in the 1950s, which would strain credulity were this not such a hopeful musical. Sharon Wilkins, whom I’ve loved in everything I’ve seen her do, once again delivers the goods as Sylvia, Lorraine’s mother. The redoubtable Jonathan Hadary as Natalie’s father is goofily charming in his character role, and Leah Hocking is hilarious as the woman who brings a museum in an Airstream trailer to the town, pressing for intellectual refinement among the populace.

The Crayola-bright and consistently ingenious sets are by David Rockwell. The costumes by David C. Woolard are equally dazzling. Direction by Christopher Ashley keeps the show rocking, and the choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Ken Roberson is smart and exciting.

This show may not shake up the musical theater, but it rocks the house with talent and fun for a delightful two-plus hours. Sometimes that’s just the ticket… so go get one.

Jean Genet’s “The Maids” is not an easy show. A ritualistic and brutal battle of role, gender, power, self-image and love, it is an absurdist play that asks the audience to travel into the darker and obsessive corners of the human mind. Through the story of two maids, played here by men, who turn on their mistress, even as they try to become her, the play uses the hierarchy of class to dissect our darkest urges.

As presented by The Chocolate Factory under Michele Chivu’s direction, it is a bold, daring and risky statement, that suggests that the maids Claire and Solange, wonderfully played by Nate Rubin and Ax Norman are powerless over their destiny and ultimate destruction. Given Genet’s life as an open homosexual, prostitute and thief, powerlessness over such urges makes sense as a theme.

The production is poetic, and if at times lacks some of the softer and subtler elements of the script, is a challenging and ultimately rewarding experience.

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