Music Theatre’s ‘Spamalot’ shines

06/14/2013 8:01 AM

08/08/2014 10:34 AM

Thank goodness what happens in Monty Python’s deliciously absurdist idea of Camelot doesn’t stay in Camelot.

It sprawls and soars, dances and prances, charms and sometimes alarms sensitive souls with its brash, rude irreverence as Music Theatre of Wichita successfully finds its comic Holy Grail with “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

The 2005 Tony Award-winning show, which opened the 42nd summer season of Wichita’s premier theater troupe Wednesday night, is a whirlwind of outrageous puns, hilarious sight gags and extravagant musical numbers that both pay homage to and skewer the cliches of classic Broadway including “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “West Side Story.”

It’s a complex and dizzying melange built around the King Arthur legend as told in the 1975 cult movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” You don’t have to be a Python fanatic to laugh at all the naughty and outrageous silliness, but it helps in understanding the richness of the references such as killer rabbits, the Knights Who Say Ni and something as simple as shrubbery.

Guest director/choreographer Billy Sprague Jr. and his assistant, Carol Bentley, essentially re-created the Broadway original for Music Theatre, using director Mike Nichols’ staging and choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s movements. Sprague, an MTW alumnus who had worked with the Broadway original, even secured the original set and costume designs to give us only one degree of separation — the cast — from that original romp.

And the cast Sprague had was more than up to filling some notably large pointy-toed shoes — although on opening night the energy level seemed to flag a bit in the middle of Act II, perhaps to catch their breath. Timing for segments involving the Knights Who Say Ni and the Black Knight (the armless, legless taunter) seemed a little off, blunting the fun. But the cast got its second wind and were ready for the rousing finale.

New York actor Bruce Winant, seen here last year as the lovable Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” is full-voiced, stalwart and amusing as a frustrated King Arthur, who can’t understand why nobody — especially mud-caked peasants — will take him seriously about forming the Round Table and going on a quest. Winant’s resonant baritone adds depth to an essentially straight-man role. He can’t even get respect from his faithful servant Patsy (Brad Bradley, recreating his quirky, catchy role from Broadway), who patiently clip-clops cocoanut shells behind Arthur when the king thinks he’s riding.

Bouncing off Arthur are his merry — make that zany, possibly crazy — knights (who also do double, triple and sometimes quadruple duty in other minor roles; part of the fun is seeing if you can pick them out).

Larry Raben, seen here in “The Producers” and “Curtains,” makes a nicely ambivalent Sir Robin, a closet coward who joins the quest, not for the glory but for the partying. Raben’s “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” which comes as Arthur is charged to put on a show as part of his quest, is wickedly knowing and hilarious.

Damon Kirsche (last year’s “9 to 5”) uses his big voice to great effect as Sir Galahad — Dennis Galahad, that is — for a Webber-esque duet, “The Song That Goes Like This,” with the Lady of the Lake, who turns him from a muddy peasant into a blow-dried blond surfer-knight. Kirsche, who has proved himself a romantic lead before (coincidentally as Arthur in 2009’s “Camelot” as well as Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady”), shows he also has a silly comic side.

Longtime local actor Monte Riegel Wheeler, known for sharp comic timing and spot-on farcical pratfalls, pulls out the stops as Sir Lancelot, “The Homicidally Brave,” who thinks he is rescuing a cute blonde princess but discovers that she — he — is hopelessly romantic Prince Herbert (Skyler Adams, in hilarious Python drag mode). Wheeler’s mugging is priceless and his transition from stodgy to spangly in a Vegas chorus line is a hilarious highlight.

And longtime local favorite Tim Robu is the bustling blowhard Sir Bedevere, whose advice to Arthur is always wrong. But Robu gets more comic mileage out of donning a skirt and frowzy wig and galumphing about as Galahad’s lusty mom. He is Python-perfect.

But the real showstopper is Kansas City’s Jennie Greenberry as the ethereal Lady of the Lake, who anoints Arthur King of the Britons, gives him the sword Excalibur and sends him on his quest. Greenberry seems to be channeling every diva from Barbra to Cher to Beyonce to create a sexy, bigger-than-life lady who is elegant and gracious — until she doesn’t get her way. Greenberry’s vocals will lift you with their beauty and jolt you with their force, whether in the romantic duet with Galahad or in the comically ferocious “Whatever Happened to My Part.”

Music director Thomas W. Douglas and his 14-piece orchestra were primed and ready from the first note of the overture for a crisp, precise performance, particularly the clean brass. The score is full of musical jokes and references, and Douglas’ group seemed on top of every one.

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