Spam-Alot Funnier

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

That's the song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," from the musical Spamalot. Of course, die-hard Monty Python fans will tell you that song originally came from the 1979 movie Life of Brian, but then very little that's in Spamalot is original. The full title of this show, which won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Musical, is Monty Python's Spamalot: A New Musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

There's not much more to explain, other than it closed on Broadway earlier this year, is now touring the U.S. and has been playing for what seems like all summer at the Ahmanson Theatre. If you're one of those Python fans, you probably saw it right when it opened; but if you're not, you may have held back, thinking "Spamalot doesn't really sound like a real musical." And you're right.

Spamalot is basically a giant skit — imagine a bunch of Monty Python fans sitting around re-hashing the plot of Holy Grail, imitating the best lines about "Shrubbery" or "Bringing out your dad," and singing the film's goofy ditties like "Brave, Brave Sir Robin." That's all it is, except when it appeared on Broadway with a few more songs, this collegiate sketch was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria.

And for me it was those stars that were the problem. As the sold-out crowd around me at the Shubert Theater howled and cheered, all I thought was: this isn't funnier than the movie. With the presence of those three comic actors — live — I felt it should be funnier. And so Spamalot was a real disappointment. The only thing that really worked was a parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber-style Broadway–power ballads, called "The Song That Goes Like This."

Four years later, revisiting Spamalot here in Los Angeles, to my great surprise, the show seems much lighter, less forced, and simply funnier at the Ahmanson than it did on Broadway.

Spamalot hasn't suddenly become a brilliant, incisive, music-drama, but it seems to have blossomed into a more modest, vaudeville style revue: a bunch of funny bits strung together that no longer feel strained.

The best reason that I can come up with to explain this is that this touring production of Spamalot doesn't have any stars in the cast. Sure, the actor playing King Arthur (the late great Graham Chapman in the film and Tim Curry on Broadway) is John O'Hurley who's well known from Seinfeld, Dancing with the Stars and now Family Feud; but you don't feel that he and the rest of the cast are trying to steal the show.

What's more, this cast seems more relaxed; they don't feel like they have to reinvent every joke (or mug and wink to the audience that they get this joke). The cast here at the Ahmanson simply acts out the gags and gets out of the way. The result is much funnier than it was on Broadway, when every pratfall and punch line seemed to be underlined and then nudged for good measure. Eric Idle and the touring company may not have found the Holy Grail of comedy here in Los Angeles, but they have managed to make their award-winning show shine a little brighter.

Spamalot runs through Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


Banner image: Joan Marcus