at the Shubert Theatre

Just as Mel Brooks lured inventive director-choreographer Susan Stroman to shepherd The Producers from screen to stage, Monty Python standard-bearer Eric Idle turned to Mike Nichols to bring the crew’s 1975 film parody of Arthurian legend to life in musical-theater form. One of the best directors of his generation–and arguably the finest working with equal facility in theater and film–Nichols established himself as a comic genius in Chicago half a century ago when he and friends from the University of Chicago pioneered and popularized improv via the Compass Players, the forerunner to Second City.

The result, Spamalot, meets a very high standard of hilarity–not surprising considering Nichols’s keen eye for casting and sense of timing. The show has its flaws, which might be worked out before its New York opening this spring. But it’s an unusually witty piece, and the slick, gag-packed production melds Broadway pizzazz with Monty Python’s trademark looniness. An inspired absurdity, Spamalot displays the influences of the music hall, Lewis Carroll verses, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and such 1950s and ’60s entertainments as Peter Sellers’s early Goon Show broadcasts, the Carry On movie series, and Beyond the Fringe.

The story is set in medieval England–a nasty, brutish world of mud and filth, plague and war, beheadings and burnings at the stake. King Arthur is traveling round the countryside–“riding” without a horse to the accompaniment of clip-clop coconuts–and recruiting knights to join him in seeking the Holy Grail. (“That’s a king,” one character says of Arthur. “How can you tell?” responds another. “He hasn’t got shit all over ‘im,” the first fellow replies.) As in the legend (and the film), the quest takes each man–Arthur, Sir Robin, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, and Sir Bedevere–on his own adventures. Arthur, for example, finds romance with the Lady of the Lake, a water nymph accompanied by a retinue of cheerleaders, the Laker Girls (ouch). Robin falls in love with the world of musical comedy, a place filled with “people who can sing and dance–often at the same time.” And Lancelot goes on a mission to rescue a princess from a tower, where she’s imprisoned until she agrees to marry according to her father’s wishes. Turns out the princess is a prince (Christian Borle), but what the hell.

Nichols and Idle (who wrote the show with composer John Du Prez) have cast performers who evoke Monty Python while bringing their own unique imprint to bear on the material. Among them is living legend Tim Curry, star of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as King Arthur and gifted actors David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria as knights; powerhouse comic diva Sara Ramirez plays the Lady of the Lake. Monty Python’s John Cleese provides a cameo voice-over as–who else?–God. And Nichols and his designers–Tim Hatley (sets and costumes), Hugh Vanstone (lights), Gregory Meeh (special effects), and Elaine J. McCarthy (projections)–have captured the whimsical style of Python animator Terry Gilliam with projected images and set pieces: the trademark Monty Python finger even descends from the rafters at the show’s climax. Forget Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon: who needs chandeliers and helicopters when you’ve got the finger?

Many elements from the original film have been retained: the Black Knight, who refuses to concede defeat even when both his arms have been hacked off; the Killer Rabbit, who must be destroyed with a holy hand grenade; an extraordinarily rude Frenchman who taunts the Britons from behind his castle walls; the towering, Viking-like Knights Who Say “Ni!”; chanting monks who bash themselves on the head with their Bibles. Anachronisms and non sequiturs abound, along with Spam jokes and shrubbery jokes, cat jokes and herring jokes, farting jokes and face-making jokes, and plenty of screeching drag.

Where Monty Python and the Holy Grail lampooned Hollywood historical epics and European art films, Spamalot cunningly spoofs Broadway conventions. References abound to West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Phantom, Les Miz, Wicked, Company, Camelot, A Connecticut Yankee, 42nd Street, Man of La Mancha, the Ziegfeld Follies, and Las Vegas revues. The pastiche score employs a wide range of idioms: jazz, cabaret (one scene features Ramirez as a Marlene Dietrich-like chanteuse), disco, hip-hop, madrigals, Gregorian chants, and the shlock-opera ballads of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Frank Wildhorn. Casey Nicholaw’s choreography ranges from tap and soft-shoe to the distinctive styles of Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins–not to mention a French cancan, a Scandinavian clog dance, and a balletic pas de deux performed by a monk and a nun. There’s audience participation and even a climactic sing-along, complete with projected lyrics: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Like The Producers, Spamalot underlines musical theater’s debts to Jews (“There’s a very small percentile / Who enjoy a dancing gentile”) and gays. A kitschy conga number pays tribute to Peter Allen, and the story concludes with a double wedding, one heterosexual and one homosexual. For all its genial goofiness, Spamalot also delivers a sharp satire of religious militarism that’s all too timely. This is, after all, the story of a leader on a holy quest accompanied by a band of heavily armed Christians.

What Spamalot lacks at this point is a central relationship the audience can care about. The Producers and Hairspray, its predecessors in the quest

for the holy grail of a Broadway hit, triumph in part because their broad comedy is balanced by an engaging love story–not a traditional romance but a tale of devoted friendship between flamboyant Max Bialystock and shy Leo Bloom in The Producers and between plump daughter and obese mother in Hairspray. The lack of connection between Arthur and his knights is true to the legend, in which each man pursues his own destiny, but the show would benefit if its creators beefed up the characters of Robin, Lancelot, and Galahad and their devotion to Arthur.

Of course, Spamalot’s performance at the box office here (and huge advance sales in New York) leaves little doubt of its commercial success. (Contrary to rumors spread in part by scalpers, there are still tickets available for the Chicago run, including good seats at the box office on the day of performance.) There’s no question this is mainstream musical theater at its slickest and funniest, yet this hilarious, tuneful adaptation makes me think Monty Python and the Holy Grail was destined for the theater from the beginning. As Arthur says, “All the world is a stage we’re just going through.”

When: Through 1/23: Tue 7:30 PM, Wed 2 and 7:30 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

Where: Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe

Price: $25-$87

Info: 312-902-1400

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.