What keeps bringing Billy Sprague Jr. back to “Monty Python’s Spamalot” is that it’s such an “absurdly happy show” that leaves audiences literally singing and humming their way out of the theater night after night.
“It’s a little selfish of me, but every time I do it, I have a blast,” said Sprague, an Oklahoma native who began his theater career two decades ago in the resident company of Music Theatre of Wichita and has been on Broadway with “Spamalot.” Since then, he performed in the 2007 Las Vegas production, choreographed two versions for California in 2010 and is now director/choreographer for MTW’s version, which kicks off the 42nd summer season Wednesday night.
Rather than reinvent the award-winning show, Sprague received permission to pay homage to the Broadway original by using staging from Mike Nichols and choreography by Casey Nicholaw, plus acquiring the original sets and costumes. Sprague and assistant choreographer Carol Bentley figure that using their own cast, which in the wacky script is encouraged to ad lib certain segments, will make the show fresh and different.
“This is the type of show where the actors see how far they can take it,” Sprague said. “It’s a huge show. It’s so prop-heavy with lots of costume changes. The traffic on stage is crazy. Someone once said that an actor’s job is to break the rules. This is one show where you can.”
Adds assistant Bentley, who was dance captain in the Las Vegas production: “The amazing thing is that while it seems hectic and last-minute, the framework and foundation are deeply layered art. It’s smart with genuine musical moments.”
The Broadway show is a musical valentine to the somewhat cultish 1975 movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” that irreverently lampooned the King Arthur legend by creating a wacky world of killer rabbits, rudely flatulent French knights, the dreaded Knights Who Say Ni, the pugnacious (and armless) Black Knight, and shrubbery. With book and lyrics “lovingly ripped off” by Eric Idle, one of the six members of the Python comedy troupe, and music by John Du Prez, the show received 14 Tony nominations and won three, including best musical for 2005.
The story deals with a confused King Arthur and his faithful servant, Patsy, roaming England trying to inspire honor and chivalry by uniting warring knights into a brotherhood called the Round Table. But poor Arthur, much like a medieval Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect.
“Arthur becomes the straight man to an insane variety of goofy knights,” said New York-based Bruce Winant, best remembered here as the poignantly lovable peasant Teyve in last season’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I think of Arthur as trapped in the wrong show,” Winant said with a chuckle. “He thought he was coming to do ‘Camelot’ but he enters a wacky world where nobody respects the king and he can’t figure out why. He’s the anchor, but everything happens to him.”
Playing Patsy, King Arthur’s longsuffering and loyal servant – who claps coconut shells together whenever the king is “riding” his horse – is Brad Bradley, who was in the Broadway original for three years.
“Coming back to the role is like seeing an old friend again. Playing Patsy was among the best memories of my life. It’s a dream role because I get perhaps the best-known song in the show (‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’). I’m thrilled to do him again,” said Bradley, who also toured with “Spamalot” with Richard Chamberlain and was on Broadway in “Annie Get Your Gun” with Bernadette Peters and Reba McEntire.
“Patsy is a good guy,” Bradley said. “I’d be friends with him because he’s selfless and faithful. He’s always looking for a way to help. But he doesn’t have any ambition. His dream is to be the best servant he can be – and nothing more.”
Bradley said his role has some definite physical challenges because Patsy carries a bulky knapsack with all the king’s worldly goods – large enough to fall back on for cushioning at one point.
“You quickly learn how many knee pads and back braces you need,” he said.
But the ad lib sections keep the actors loose and on their toes, even when things go awry, Bradley said. He recalled one night on Broadway when one actor flew into the wings and got stuck, leaving his fellow actors stranded on stage to fill the gap while he untangled himself.
“Everybody checked his ego at the door,” Bradley said. “Everybody’s input was important. The ensemble was so brilliant I don’t think the audience was aware there was any problem.”
Among the knights Arthur rounds up are the radical populist peasant Dennis Galahad (Damon Kirsche), who is skeptical of any king who isn’t elected; the romantically-confused Lancelot (Monte Riegel Wheeler), who joins the Round Table for the gloriously bloody battles; the mild-mannered Robin (Larry Raben), who joins for victory celebrations afterward; and the perpetually and hilariously misinformed Bedevere (Timothy W. Robu).
Playing five different roles, from the lively Not-Dead Fred to the wistful Prince Herbert, who fancies himself a Disney Princess, is Skyler Adams.
Struggling against all that chivalric testosterone as the fabulous, diva-licious Lady of the Lake – not to mention leader of the Laker Girls – is Jennie Greenberry, a Kansas City-based actress making her MTW debut.
“I’ll be honest, there’s not a lot of acting going on,” said Greenberry, who said she’s exploiting her inner diva in a role that fits like a glove. “I’ve definitely been channeling a little Beyonce as Sasha Fierce and the early Liza (Minnelli) as well as a jazz singer friend of mine.”
Greenberry said the role is actually dual-layered, which makes it an interesting challenge.
“She’s a mythical figure who’s larger than life, but you also get a chance to see the actress inside playing her as she sings about not getting more stage time (‘Whatever Happened to My Part?’). But she’s not a villain. She’s just self-centered. I appreciate that.”
Music director Thomas W. Douglas, who is beginning his 14th season with MTW, described “Spamalot’s” score as “zany” with a “lot of musical jokes thrown in,” such as familiar operatic themes highlighting comments on stage.
“There are a lot of great melodies making up 15 to 20 different styles,” says Douglas, who will lead a 14-piece orchestra for this show. “Even in the same song, you may go from vaudeville to soft shoe to power ballad to gospel. It’s cool. And it keeps everything interesting.”