Saturday, May 2, 2015

Walk this way to Tarkington Civic Theatre's outrageously vigorous production of 'Monty Python's Spamalot'

Ensemble brio and precision contribute mightily to the show's success.
The Monty Python troupe of enduring legend never thought it needed to confine itself to one satirical target at a time. Its style, which to describe as "unbuttoned" would be an understatement, is permanently enshrined in the musical that alumnus Eric Idle created after "Monty Python's Flying Circus" left the airwaves and a few uproarious films had been made.

One of them, "Monty Python and the the Holy Grail," is the basis for the Broadway show Idle concocted with the tunesmithing assistance of John Du Prez. Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre is into the second weekend of a three-weekend run  at its home base, the Tarkington at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.

Friday's performance, with musical direction by Brent E. Marty keeping the peppy pit band and the singers coordinated, set the pulse racing from the overture onward into the show's pseudo-false start, "The Fisch Schlapping Song." In that mock-folk number set in a mythical Finland, everything fell in place zanily, with the piscine props and angular poses moving smartly to Anne Nicole Beck's choreography.

About those multiple satirical targets: "Spamalot" picks up on the broad travesty of the Arthurian legends that made "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" such a hit. That's the scenario that includes all the characters, from the Black Knight through the Knights that Say Ni to the Killer Rabbit, encountered by King Arthur and his seriously challenged Round Table knights in their quest for the Holy Grail.

King Arthur discourses volubly to his taken-for-granted sidekick, Patsy.
Thrown into that mixture is its self-consciousness as a show full of Broadway cliches, notably in "The Song That Goes Like This." That mock love duet was one of the highlights of Bill Book's effusive characterization of King Arthur, joined to the flamboyant egocentricity of the Lady of the Lake, as played by Katie Schuman. Any plausibility (and who needs that in a show like this?) is blown to smithereens by the time some audience participation comes into play with the discovery of the Holy Grail out among the well-filled seats at the Tarkington.

Schuman's voice was well-suited to impersonating divas of several types, especially the Motown touches that "Find Your Grail" is subject to as it is put through an R&B-ballad blender late in the first act.

Other splendid performances were turned in by Parrish Williams as Arthur's sidekick, Patsy, coconut shells ever at the ready to supply hoof beats, and Stuart Mill as the none-too-valiant Sir Robin. Mill shone particularly in Robin's friendly warning to Arthur, "You Won't Succeed on Broadway." The ensemble kicks in, as it does on so many numbers, to put the point across with hilarious overstatement. The only one, in fact, that fell short on brilliance was "His Name Is Lancelot," which needed more egregious caricature of gays in show-biz mode.

No Pythonesque invitation to offend can be ignored in a production of this show, and Civic's version, under Robert Sorbera's full-bore direction, seemed willing to take that chance in every other instance.
God is a barefoot scold and bully, and any holiness that clings to the Grail is rubbed off with enthusiasm. Civic's hard-working ensemble is game to play up all possible parody elements, from cheerleaders to nuns 'n' monks.

The look of the show is stunning, especially in the introduction of the Lady of the Lake — one of the particularly well-designed triumphs of the Koharchik brothers — Robert (set) and Ryan (lighting). The rest of the design team also turns in first-rate work.

All the ridiculousness the audience is asked to take in serves the show's purpose. That purpose seems obvious, but defies being put into a straightforward description. "Monty Python's Spamalot" is simply The Show That Goes Like This.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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