By Betsy Wolfe
Naperville’s Brightside Theatre finishes its fifth season with a crazy, high-energy rendition of Monty-Python’s Spamalot.
With a book and lyrics by Eric Idle and music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle, the 2005 Broadway musical is based on the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, created by Idle and John Cleese, with characters played by other Monty Python TV show cast. The title Spamalot was taken from one line in the movie: “We eat ham, and jam, and Spam a lot.” As in the movie, the plot involves King Arthur, his search for knights to join his round table and to ultimately find the Holy Grail in a quest given to him by God, (voiced by Cleese in this version and Idle in others.) More about the silly and irreverent plot is here.
Brightside’s production in its 239-seat Meiley-Swallow Hall opens on a mostly empty stage with just two cartoonish towers at each end of the far stage wall. There is clearly no room for an orchestra in the auditorium, so having the orchestra play in a remote location, as is the case in this production, is a good solution. Once the historian comes out to start the show, the whirlwind begins and the energy never palls.
The music itself is so well executed as to seem pre-recorded. Clearly, it is not. The syncing of music cues and stage business is spot on. Kudos to Music Director Sarah Giordano, conducting over keyboards in an offstage studio with a headset and mic, almost a cast member herself. Any concern regarding this as a possible distraction to the audience quickly vanishes. If anything, the arrangement enhances the experience. On opening night, when a cymbal crash was used to accentuate a joke onstage, Arthur gestured to the conductor’s video monitor, and it looked like Giordano gestured back. Delightful and unexpected. This interaction could grow with the production and add even more over time. Vocally, the small cast outputs great volume in group numbers while staying beautifully in balance with her orchestra
The cast of Spamalot boasts some fine singers and notable performances. Robert Sorenson (King Arthur) croons a beautiful ballad style both times he duets with Amanda Walsh (Lady of the Lake). Sorenson’s speaking voice and accent are well executed with regal aplomb and dignity. Walsh clearly enjoys the spotlight, so her somewhat plain costume for Lady of the Lake doesn’t detract from her stage presence. Vocally, Walsh evokes various vocal personalities. In the Camelot section where Lady of the Lake usually has a “Cher” moment, Walsh’s style joyfully summons Liza Minnelli, which makes more sense anyway. Mik Dempsey (as Sir Galahad, along with various other characters) has his own pretty duet with Walsh which belies more that this actor can do vocally than he has a chance to exploit in this production.
Mark Johnson plays a variety of fun roles, including Lancelot. He transitions among them well, so that one had to check the program to make sure he is the same person. Patsy, the faithful squire to King Arthur, is played to comedic perfection by Scott Kelley. Kelley’s character flies under the radar early on, but builds in importance as the show progresses without needless mugging or over the top foolishness. In the hierarchy of comic figures, he is a good tramp to Sorenson’s occasional ringmaster/auguste. Another standout performance is Ryan Berg‘s who plays five characters, including Prince Herbert and the Lead Knight of Ni. Berg’s sense of timing, voicing and physical comedy elevates every scene he’s part of.
In the tradition of great ensemble productions, there is no one “star” of this show. Director Cass’s Spamalot allows chorus members to have a lot of fun and responsibility and it’s clear that all the actors onstage want to be there. The dancing is well choreographed by Jeni Donahue and finely executed by all actors. It’s always great when companies can highlight the tap-dancing in this show, and Donahue makes excellent choices with the male actors, including the funny segment where Arthur is lent a hand with his tap dancing by Patsy. In general, each chorus member adds greatly to the whole performance making ensemble contributions into true highlights.
The challenges for director Cass in a production like this have much to do with blocking on a thrust stage. Most of the time this is not a problem, and Cass places actors to great advantage for the three-sided viewing. The only time this is an issue is toward the end of the first act, when taller actors are placed at the edge of the stage facing toward the front. Being a small gallery with few rows, seating is very close so the only view that audience has of anything is Sir Bedevere’s backside.
Costumes for this production range from very simple to somewhat extravagant, with a good balance between historical interest, comic needs and budget. Designer Shana Hall’s Lady of the Lake costumes are among the finest with smart choices for the rest of the cast on such a small stage.
Eric Luchen’s scenic designs are simple, fun and wholly appropriate for the space; they are well augmented by lighting designer Joanna Szewczuk’s effects and special touches.
Opening night jitters may be partly responsible for the few distractions during this production. The “Outrageous French accent” used by the Taunter was fairly difficult to understand and didn’t satisfactorily emulate the spirit of the dialogue as quoted most often by fans of the movie. There was far too much messing around in view of the audience when it was time to set the black knight up to lose his legs. No amount of distraction from other gags during the pause helped, and that bit should be re-worked. Finally, the “Run Away” portion of the Act 1 finale amounts to an exercise in disarray and confusion and is a poor way to leave the audience perception before intermission. With those issues addressed, the rest of the show is an enormous amount of fun.
The best part of Brightside’s version of Spamalot is that it’s accessible to the audience. The company’s unique approach to breaking the fourth wall and connecting to their audience allows for spectators to invest in the characters as if they were playing in a living room. This is difficult to achieve without a good-natured love of what the cast is doing. This is usually a sign that the staff of the company and the production are trickling their joy and professionalism into the cast, giving the freedom to let go and have fun while staying in character and working hard. Kudos. This easily makes up for opening night mistakes.
Colorful, joyous, boisterous and unapologetic, Brightside’s Spamalot is not to be missed.
“Spamalot” runs through June 19 at the Theatre at Meiley-Swallow Hall at North Central College, 31 S Ellsworth St, Naperville. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets ($22 – $25 with discounts for groups of 10 ore more) are available here.