REVIEW: Spartanburg Little Theatre’s Holy Grail Quest is a SMASHalot!

Ryan Barry (Patsy) and Stan Peal (King Arthur) star in SPAMALOT. Photo generously provided by Thomas Koenig.

“Monty Python’s Spamalot” is a gut-busting, belly-aching foray into Arthurian lore with a Camelot-worthy cast in spot-on accents, dazzling musical numbers, sparkling costumes and a delightfully waggish sensibility.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

The plot may be outlandish, even insipid. And the jokes are asinine. But as far as pure dippy escapism goes, it’s difficult to top the Medieval mayhem in Spartanburg Little Theatre’s “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

The final main stage production of SLT’s 71st season, “Spamalot” is based on the cult-classic film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” by the famed British sketch comedy troupe behind “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

The original 2005 Broadway production, directed by Mike Nichols, won three Tony Awards including Best Musical and starred Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce and Christian Borle.

In this riotous take on the Arthurian legend adapted by Python co-counder Eric Idle and John Du Prez, King Arthur (valiantly played by SLT newcomer Stan Peal,) and his sidekick Patsy (Ryan Barry in his 12th show at SLT) embark on an adventure to recruit his knights of the round table and find the sacred golden chalice that Jesus imbibed from at the Last Supper.

And along the way they encounter chanting monks, Black Plague victims, defiant English peasants, rude French castle guards, Laker cheerleaders, Vegas showgirls and even a killer rabbit. Oh, and a fiefdom full of old-fashioned British Music Hall song-and-dance numbers that sinfully skewer the excesses of pop culture and lampoon the Broadway musical genre itself by constantly breaking the fourth wall.

Peal, who patrons may recognize from his weekly film critic show “The Reel Guys” on The Carolinas CW, earns his stripes and Excalibur sword with gallant fervor here with a burly baritone voice and bountifully committed and noble performance, heightened by the fact that he only embodies King Arthur while his cast mates must portray a multitude of characters.

And Barry is simply sensational as the Patsy, dressed as an Igor archetype from “Young Frankenstein” sans the hump. He has perfected his spot-on lower-class British accent and seranades and whistles through the show’s best-known song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which is actually from another Monty Python film “Life of Brian.”  One may feel compelled to sway and whistle along in this number that features the finest umbrellography since “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Ben Dawkins (last seen in the 2016 Fringe Series hit “Avenue Q”) is a dynamo again and demonstrates his broad classical training and impeccable range as he takes on five (yes, five!) distinct characters of both sexes in the Monty Python tradition. From the Historian (the narrator) to a Minstrel and the dandy Prince Herbert, Dawkins permeates this production with aplomb. But his finest hour is early on as Not Dead Fred, a Black Plague near-causality in the astutely-executed “I’m Not Dead.” BRAVO Mr. Dawkins.

SLT’s leading man of the past year Brandon Alan Gaunt (“Ring of Fire,” “Avenue Q” and “Beauty and the Beast”) astounds again with a swath of peculiar characters too from the  towering Knight of Ni with a horned hat to a hilarious smart-ass French Taunter who refuses to open the castle doors to Arthur and his posse. But Gaunt is most loveable as the dashing – albeit confused – Sir Lancelot, whose “crowning” moment is undeniably in a fashion double-reveal amidst a village of disco icons.

Patric Phillips (who will be directing “One Flew Over the Cucko’s Nest” in November) serves up his unique brand of flamboyant and ebullient chivalry as Sir Robin, the ginger-haired dandy of a Knight who joins the soiree with ambitions of dressing up and dancing. And he may have gotten the biggest applause of opening night, not only because he is so darn charming in this character (David Hyde Pierce in the Broadway run), but he de facto leads the gang in the show’s most innovatove routine (“You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”) with steps that parody “Fiddler on the Roof” and lyrics that insist the show will not be a success with any Jews.

And in the midst (and mist) of all of the talented testosterone in this musical, floats a sole woman who can, vocally speaking, slay an entire army of knights: the lovely Janice Wilkins as the Lady of the Lake, a Glenda the Good Witch-type mystical being who weaves in and out of the narrative with her songs and always looks like a star. Ms. Wilkins, who returns to SLT after a very long hiatus, honestly left me speechless and in awe with her scope of vocal range and her breadth of styles from her duet with Peal (“Come With Me”) and her operatic aria voice in “The Diva’s Lament” to her fantastic jazz stylings in “The Song That Goes Like This.” But the tune that carries the theme of the show (yes, there is a message beneath all the silly skullduggery) is the serene, uplifting ballad “Find Your Grail,” and Wilkins is … flawless. Someone, give this lady a recording contract.

Kate Roark, an adjunct professor at Converse College, makes her SLT debut with “Spamalot,” and she succeeds on all fronts, with attention paid to the rapid flow and insanity of the story and pinprick comic timing. And this is all enhanced by Peter Lamson’s electrifying lighting and effects that add so much dimension and atmosphere to the overall production.

Two of the stars of “Spamalot” are never seen on stage but we see their stunning touches in almost every musical number: William Wilkins and Emily Patterson, who choreographed the fanciful dance routines with high-octane, stylized steps that range from romantic swing and dizzying can-can to a  kick-line. And no where is their expertise more apparent than in “Knights of the Round Table” sequence as we are transported the Camelot Hotel and Casino for sparkling Vegas showgirls and a thrilling showstopping tap dance routine. Kudos to this dynamic duo!

The whimsical castle set was designed by Dr. Tim Baxter-Ferguson and the creative team maintains the Monty Python mode of simple and caricaturized set pieces (like the “expensive” forest) and props like the click-clack of mimed horses via coconut shells. Keep in mind, the original film was made on a paltry $400,000 budget in 1975.

Production and Costume Designer Will Luther has outdone himself with nearly 100 multi-layered costumes in browns and grays for the Knights, monks, and citizenry to a kaleidoscopic feast of colors for the fantasy sequences like a sexy take on Finnish kansallispuvu dress and the Las Vegas showgirls. But he saves the most decadent creations for the Lady of the Lake, who makes her entrance swathed in lavish glittering green and teal with a seashell corset and later dazzles in a shimmering silver jumpsuit with Abba-esque flared sleeves and bellbottoms topped with a Cher (or “Victor/Victoria”) beaded headdress.

“Spamalot” also features Paul Gerber as Sir Dennis Galahad and the Black Knight, Doug Egge as Sir Bedevere and multiple roles and Damion DesLaurier as Sir Not Appearing.

The outstanding ensemble is all in for this bloody good time and includes Ben Abrams, Kelly Casteel, Damion DesLaurier, Anna Emory, Doug Herndon, Jim Huber, Ethan Lyles, Stacy Onines-Jensen, Keith Shambaugh, Ashleigh Shook, Susan A. Sistare and Paige Vasel.

Music Director Karen Hampton conducts from the orchestra pit and plays keyboard along with Ben Chumley and Janae O’Shields, and Henry Hampton on violin, Tim Bivins and Katie Smith on trumpet, Mike Miller on trombone; Ron Miller and Frank Watson on reeds; Shawn Allen on guitar; Josh Tennant on bass; Kevin Heuer on drums; and Pam McNeil on percussion and keyboard.

Jennifer Nockles is Stage Manager on “Spamalot” and Katherine Rausch (who also contributed on many of the original props) is Assistant Stage Manager.

Connie McIntyre is SLT’s Head Seamstress, Props are by Beth Hedden and Leah Hedden and Matthew Polowczuck is sound engineer.

The running crew is comprised of Jean Danfy, Morgan Kimbrell, Anna Elyse Lewis, Cassandra Scott, Mark Stidham and Carson Wolfe.

“Spamalot” runs through May 14 with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. with an additional 3 p.m. matinee on Saturday, May 13, at Chapman Cultural Center, 200 E. St. John St. in Spartanburg. For tickets, call (864) 542-2787 or visit http://www.spartanburglittletheatre.com

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