The cast of Spamalot, with Josh Epstein at centre, on one knee. (photo by David Cooper)
In any great adventure,
that you don’t want to lose,
victory depends upon the people that you choose.
So, listen, Arthur darling, closely to this news:
We won’t succeed on Broadway,
If you don’t have any Jews.
– Sir Robin, Spamalot
Of all the Monty Python films, perhaps none has deposited as many “Pythonisms” as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Who can forget the airspeed of an African swallow, horse hoofs portrayed by empty coconut halves, the knights who say “ni,” the killer rabbit and, that old chestnut, “It’s only a flesh wound.”
Produced in 1975, Holy Grail was the second in a string of five successful Python films that included And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), Life of Brian (1979), Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982) and The Meaning of Life (1983).
Funny thing is, although I’ve seen Holy Grail perhaps a dozen times over the years, I don’t recall the presence of a giant Magen David dangling in a spotlight as the cast sings, “You haven’t got a clue if you don’t have a Jew.” Call me crazy but I don’t think that was in the original.
But then Spamalot does not suggest that it’s anything other than a rip off (albeit lovingly done), so, although it’s based on the movie, be prepared for the use of monumental artistic licence. And yet, what better piece for physical comedian/actor/musical theatre devotee Josh Epstein to sing as he prances around the stage in one of the funniest performances you’ll see this year.
Epstein has already proven his prowess in memorable productions such as The Producers in 2008 and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2010. But seeing him frolic in chain mail, bedecked with Orlando Bloom hair, or hurling brilliant insults as a French soldier wearing the equivalent of a Conehead helmet, is gut-wrenchingly hysterical.
For those not familiar with the story, the plot centres on King Arthur’s attempt to round up some knights (or “ke-nicts” as Epstein mispronounces in his French “aksant”) to search for the grail. On his path, he encounters challenges of outrageous (in size and humor) proportions. He can’t even convince the local serfs that he deserves their respect as a king after relating how he acquired the title from the Lady of the Lake. “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is a bad way to choose a government,” he is told.
The hapless Arthur (David Marr) continues undaunted, however, eventually rounding up four knights – the Homicidally Brave Sir Lancelot (Jay Hindle); Sir Robin, the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot (Epstein); Sir Galahad, the Dashingly Handsome (Jonathan Winsby); and Sir Bedevere, the Strangely Flatulent (Ashley O’Connell). His biggest challenge comes when he is told by the knights who say “ni” that he can only continue his quest if he puts on a successful Broadway musical.
“Can it be done?” he asks Sir Robin. Yes, he responds, but only if you have Jews in the production. After all, “It’s a very small percentile who want to see a dancing gentile.”
Enter the Magen David, a menorah on a piano and four knights and one king who suddenly transform into Chassidic Yiddim.
As it turns out, Arthur’s sidekick Patsy is a member of the tribe, but has been keeping it a secret.
“It’s not the sort of thing you say to a heavily armed Christian,” he responds to Arthur when asked why he was not forthcoming.
Beyond the brilliant writing, kudos have to be given to choreographer Lisa Stevens and costume coordinator Rebekka Sorensen-Kjelstrup. The look, the sound and the dancing all elevate the production into stratospheric entertainment.
Monty Python’s Spamalot, with book and lyrics by Eric Idle, runs until June 29 at the Arts Club’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, artsclub.com. Warning: profane language.
Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer, editor and photographer. Her work can be seen at orchiddesigns.net.