There's a very specific strain of English humor — a sort of hyper-literate silliness — that stems from a love of nonsense as a genre. Think Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and now think Spamalot, a musical loosely based on the legendary 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with a little Life of Brian thrown in for good measure. Nonsense is by definition subversive, since it subverts sense. It also makes fun of authority, mocks monarchy, parodies religion, insists that solemnity is stupid and, in short, upends all the established norms and forms it can get its metaphorical little hands on.
Monty Python's direct predecessors in England — before the much-loved Beyond the Fringe — were the Goons, a trio of radio actors that included the young Peter Sellers. They specialized in peculiar voices, idiotic plots (in one Goon Show, all the buildings in London grew hair, and Parliament had to decide on an appropriate hairstyle) and creating catchily ridiculous words and sounds. For years, whenever my school friends and I suffered from an indeterminate ailment like a cold, we told each other we had "the lurgi." Try that word on the next middle-aged English person you meet, or mutter "ying-tong-iddle-I-po," and see if you don't get a startled guffaw of recognition. The Knights Who Say Ni in Spamalot are direct descendents of the Goons. Goon humor is extremely time- and place-bound, however. It doesn't travel well. Monty Python — which had the advantage of the visual media at its disposal — broadened the concept and acquired a wider audience.
Spamalot, which was written by Monty Python's Eric Idle, is full of lovely nonsense. There's a cuddly little bunny that rips out men's throats. During a scene set in the death-saturated Middle Ages, as a wagon trundler intones "Bring out your dead," an apparent corpse responds with the very reasonable assertion that he's not dead yet, and insists on proving it in rollicking song and dance. There's also a new version of the famed Trojan Horse: a large wooden rabbit that the knights, unfortunately, have forgotten to occupy. In the legend of Camelot, King Arthur finds his mission when he is given his sword, Excalibur, by the mysterious Lady of the Lake. But here, the Lady is a peevish diva, and the peasantry, which has been infected with Marxism, isn't sure it wants a king, anyway.
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through October 7, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
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Anti-authoritarian to the core, Spamalot even cocks a snook at God himself, as represented by a booming off-stage voice and huge cardboard foot, and the show's effervescent dopiness precludes anyone's taking offense.
But Idle is aware of current trends and mixes contemporary elements in with the nonsense to create a great, jumping jovial mix, a real Broadway blockbuster. He knows modern audiences want big, flashy numbers in their musicals, so he provides them — but in his own way. He takes on Andrew Lloyd Webber's heavy-handed, over-emotional, show-stopping songs with a pitch-perfect parody called "The Song That Goes Like This." Since no Broadway show is complete without some treacle about following your heart, the search for the mythical Holy Grail becomes precisely that as the cast warbles "Find Your Grail." Want glittery costumes? Spamalot's got 'em. Scenes evoking other well-known musicals? Of course. Lots of long-legged, high-stepping showgirls and some pop-culture references you can pat yourself on the back for recognizing? Check and check again. You could call Spamalot postmodernist or a meta-musical (my companion did). Whatever you call it, the way the show comments on what it's doing even while doing it is satisfying; it lets you eat your entertainment cake and deride it at the same time.
This is far more than a literary exercise (even though, like Rowan Atkinson's marvelously funny and nonsensical Blackadder, Idle's humor assumes the viewer knows at least the familiar schoolbook tropes about British history and myth). The production is almost non-stop entertainment and filled with wonderful performances, from Michael Siberry's strong, rueful King Arthur to Esther Stilwell's blissful combination of gorgeous voice and outrageous comic presence as Lady of the Lake. Jeff Dumas provides excellent support as Patsy; the knights — Robert Petkoff, Patrick Heusinger, Anthony Holds and Christopher Gurr — are very funny in very individual ways; and Christopher Sutton is a complete scene-stealer in several roles, including Prince Herbert. Conductor Ben Whiteley keeps the music irresistibly sprightly.
In short, Spamalot eats The Little Mermaid's lunch.