Spamalot, the Broadway musical based on the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, bursts at the seams with insanely good gags. They are written by Eric Idle, but they feel as though they have arisen spontaneously on the spot. Director Dustin Czarny’s Central New York Playhouse, giving Spamalot a local premiere, has always embraced improvisational comedy. Sure enough, spritely new bits of business on local themes keep popping up and are indistinguishable from Idle’s material in tone and effectiveness.
Take, for example, the lines of baritone Bob Brown, still fixed in the minds of local theatergoers as the title character in Jesus Christ Superstar. As King Arthur, he is asked how he would have the audacity to speak to God, a booming off-stage presence. “Well,” Brown’s Arthur says pensively, “for 30 years I thought I was his son.”
Czarny’s company is well prepared to take the madness and frenzy of Spamalot, but a stickier question is whether it can handle the size. As directed by Mike Nichols, Broadway’s Spamalot could pass for a mega-musical with big production numbers, special stage effects and a trainload of costumes. This production has 20 players on stage, one of whom, Dan Rowlands, plays nine characters (too many to list in the program). Scenic designer Navroz Dabu, the man who works miracles with painted cardboard, has come up with castles, portcullis gates and drawbridges.
Costumers Barbara Toman, Michael Daugherty and Vanessa Benelli worked overtime for all those rapid changes. In the opening number the female chorus is dressed as Finnish villagers for the “Fisch Schlapping Song,” from a contrived misreading of the narrator, mistaking Finland for England. Zip-zip through two interludes and they’re back as the NFL-inspired Laker Girls supporting the Lady of the Lake (Cathleen O’Brien Brown).
Czarny and company can turn all this paraphernalia around on a dime. Once the narrator has clarified that the story will not be about those fun-loving Finns, the next scene indeed switches to dreary, dark England, where penitent monks are chanting in Latin.
Although Idle’s title implies that the show is a farce version of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, it pays no attention to that love-triangle narrative. Instead the satirical darts are spread widely, many of them landing on British sobriety and esteem for a heroic past, especially as portrayed in costume movies. The irreverence treads lightly on religious tradition.
Medieval folk may have thought the Holy Grail survived from Jesus’ Last Supper, but that was never the position of the church. The show gets snarkier when hitting an American secular target. Take the second act’s “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” where the recommendation is to sign up as many Jews as possible.
Signing up Mr. and Mrs. Brown is one of Czarny’s most important steps in ensuring the success of Spamalot. Not for nothing are their mug shots on the program cover. Along with linking his still-new company with the Browns’ large fan base, Czarny also gets the big voices he needs.
Besides playing Camelot’s Arthur locally, Brown has also toured with the role professionally. We know the show’s going well when Brown soars into his first number, “Arthur’s Song,” with his appropriately named comic sidekick Patsy (Simon Moody). Patsy’s coconut sound effects for their horses’ hoofs are an endearing gag that bears repeating.
Over the years Brown has been a funny man often enough, even if he is popularly associated with serious roles, such as the first local production of Sweeney Todd. Along with some top-of-the-line zingers, he generates much of the laughter through restraint. Not as a straight man, exactly, but something like Leslie Nielsen when the moviemaking Zucker brothers (Airplane!) discovered he had an antic side.
Cathleen O’Brien Brown, on the other hand, the most prominent operatic voice in community theater, has her fun by first being a diva as the Lady of the Lake, and then spoofing the very idea of being a diva. Her first big number is a kind of “Anything You Can Do” contest duet, “The Song That Goes Like This,” with Sir Galahad (baritone Steve Gamba). Gamba was first seen in these parts as the Sheriff in July’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. “The Song That Goes Like This,” which allows for variations in delivery, is reprised twice. Musically, these bring down the house, dominantly from O’Brien Brown’s opera-house-sized vocals, but also because music director Abel Searor is leading a seven-player ensemble with two trumpets and percussion.
Elsewhere Czarny draws on experienced players previously associated with other companies. Trevor F. Hill was earlier known for Shakespearean roles, including a memorable Hamlet, but he turns out to have a resonant baritone for his intro song, “Brave Sir Robin,” and a deft comic touch for “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway.” Alan D. Stillman, never afraid to show some lavender, turns in a comically epicene Sir Lancelot with topical jokes. His marriage to the cross-dressing Prince Herbert (Jon Wilson) is more farce than politics. Earlier in a different costume, Wilson writhes around in his own number as Not Dead Fred, the bullied peasant who refuses to die. And Czarny had to reach all the way back to Father Charles Borgognoni’s Pompeian Players for Jim Magnarelli as the terrible-tempered Bedevere, who constantly breaks through the fourth wall to chew out the orchestra.
Choreographers Anthony Wright and Stephfond Brunson split the work of the many innovative production numbers. Wright also appears as dance captain.
People who run comedy clubs know that jokes are funnier in small, crowded rooms. Audiences will be tickled to find out how well the Monty Python insanity flies in a packed converted retail space in Shoppingtown.
This production runs through Sept. 21.