Monty Python’s Spamalot brings the humor, the compassion and the geeks together at Orlando Shakes

By : Billy Manes
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“Leave him alone!” Sir Lancelot says. “This poor little chap is your son, sir. All he ever wanted was a little love and affection, but did you ever give it to him? No, no. I’ll wager you denied him. You try to kill him, and worse, far worse, you try to marry him off to some girl, some female that he obviously has no feelings for whatsoever. Yes, yes, I know a little bit about bullying fathers you bastard. Have you no heart? Have you no human tenderness?  Can’t you see that all he’s asking for is a little love and understanding? Is that too much to ask? Is it? Too Much! To Ask!”

“My god! You’re gay.”

Such was but one of the sharp-edged pieces that make up the hilarious diaspora of the Holly Grail, at least as it pertains to King Arthur and his, er, compassionate son Sir Lancelot, but the grail runs far deeper than that, and sillier.

This month, the Orlando Shakespeare Theater revives the Broadway roundtable made famous by its original writer Eric Idle – Spamalot is a musical reworking of the cult film classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail – just one year after asking all of Orlando to be miserable (in that Les Miserables kind of way). After last year’s flashmob promotions for Les Miz, you wouldn’t think the Shakes could top itself. Well, throw in a video of the mayor engaging in a community-wide sing-along of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” with hundreds of others across Orlando, and you might be inclined to think otherwise. Also, the play sees the return of two of last year’s stars, Davis Gaines and Michael Hunsaker, along with a host of other luminaries willing to don various costumes to keep up with the show’s hyperactive pacing. Orlando Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jim Helsinger, a Monty Python fan, explains to Watermark how all of this came about and, well, how sometimes dry humor is inclined to linger longer than a pratfall.

Watermark: Spamalot seems a lot to dive headfirst into the giggles given the typical heft of Orlando Shakespeare Theater productions.
Jim Helsinger: Well, as you may know, we did Les Miserables last year, which was the first musical we’d done in a long time, and it was a huge success, and we really wanted to follow that up with something else that people would like. And one of the keys I think that made people want to come see Les Miz is it had previously never been released regionally in Central Florida. You either saw the Broadway tour, or you never saw it at all. So there were a lot of people that either saw that and loved that or had never seen the show before… so we were looking for a play that was similar. And Spamalot is in the same boat. If you’ve seen Spamalot in central Florida, you saw the Broadway tour or you’d never seen it.

So, some kind of staged, bombastic whiplash, then? Les Miserables isn’t exactly funny.
We actually did a survey while Les Miserables was running – just as Les Miserables was closing I think … to ask people what they really wanted to see, and the number one was West Side Story, but we could not get the rights to West Side Story. And in the top five was Spamalot. And we thought, oh, that’s a great idea. And, actually, those rights have become available to regional theaters. That fits everything we want to do and it’s at the top five of what our audience wants to see, and I personally am a massive Monty Python fan.

Ha! I figured. How far back do your Python leanings go?
When I was a kid back in the Stone Age, we only had three television stations, and none of them got BBC programming, so actually the way I learned all the Monty Python skits and Monty Python and the Holy Grail was my best friend had bought them on record and we listened to the albums of all of the Monty Python skits, and the album – actually the album is called The Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So I had memorized the whole movie at like, I don’t know, 13, before I ever saw it in any way. And I think it very much informed me personally. It was the type of humor that I’ve always liked.

You have some pretty big names involved, including some from your production of Les Miserables. That sounds convenient.
While the play was running we were brainstorming what we want to do next year and somehow Davis Gaines heard that we were talking about Spamalot and said, I’d love to play King Arthur, and I was like, well that sounds great, you know. Davis Gaines is nationally known and a fantastic actor and singer, and his family literally lives right across the lake from the Shakespeare Theater, so it was really nice for him too, you know, getting to spend time where he was born and to really bring national status to a Central Florida stage.

Spamalot is a pretty large production with lots of set pieces and costumes. How were you able to translate that into the intimacy of the Shakes?
The actors that we have are tremendous, and the material was tremendous from Les Miserables, but I think the shape of the theater helps create an intimate experience that people rarely ever have with Les Miserables and I think they will have that again with Spamalot. I mean, there are people dancing on the sides. There is somebody dancing right at you – literally three feet away from you, and you know that is really special. So there are little jokes and moments that will be just for you. Now people do have to also understand the thrust environment puts you, no matter where you are in the theater, close to the action at certain times, so it will mimic the reality of life. I mean it is just like, you know, for the sing-along we did, a lot of people dressed up. They came dressed up as the monks that slap themselves with the bible. People came dressed as knights. People came as coconuts. It was fun.

So, basically a Monty Python free-for-all, then?
It turned out really well. I mean of course, we’ve never done that before, so we didn’t really know. We thought, well, we think this is a great idea. Let’s try it. Let’s see if the mayor wants to do it. Mayor Buddy Dyer was fantastic. He was happy to donate his time and, as it turned out, I think it’s not only an advertisement for our production going forward, it’s an advertisement for Central Florida in general. That came about when we did the flash mob last year for Les Miserables. It was a huge success, and there have been over a million hits on YouTube, and you’re like, well, how can we try to touch that again?

Are there limitations to putting a show this size on at the Shakes? Is it a stripped-down affair?
Oh, no, we’re not playing it down. We’re using the costumes from London’s West End production. Although the wardrobe from the original West End production, it’s had a lot of use, so we have to repair or redesign the black knight’s costume, because [in the play] his arms and legs have to get chopped off. I mean, there’s a lot of tech in this. But no, I think if anything, I think the audience will think it’s bigger than Les Miz. They’ll see so much more. I mean, Les Miz is a huge production, but it is essentially somewhat of a unit set to an extent. And this environment changes in every single scene. And the actor changes clothes in every single scene.

Do you think it’s misleading to dismiss the Monty Python phenomenon as slapstick without any salient meaning?
No, I do think there’s social commentary there. Now I think a really great choice that Eric Idle made was taking the song “Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which was originally written for Life of Brian, and moving it into Spamalot. I think that that’s a good summary of Monty Python’s work. Life is tragic; events happen in life. There’s nothing you can do about it. And you’re gonna die. We’re all gonna die. So why don’t we spend some of this time that we have on the planet looking for fun and laughter and the brighter side, because the darkness can overwhelm you. You know another great thing about Monty Python is you don’t go out tonight, and then it’s over. You’ll laugh about something four days from now and go, “Oh God, when his head gets chopped off, it’s so funny.” It’s like Steve Martin and Saturday Night Live.That was really a new style of humor, because before that, it was very much constructed: Here is my setup, there’s the punch line, here’s where you laugh. Now we’ll move on. I know people have said to me before that the very first time [they] saw Monty Python, [they] laughed, but then [they] really started laughing a couple days later. Woody Allen does the same thing. “And then I saw it again and then it was funnier, and then I saw it again and it was even funnier than the second time I saw it, so, you know, I was hoping that buying a ticket to Spamalot is giving me a laugh today, a laugh tomorrow, a laugh two weeks from now,” and if art can be providing some relief from the difficulties of life, it’s serving a pretty good purpose.

MORE INFORMATION
WHAT: Monty Python’s Spamalot
WHEN: Sept. 11-Sept. 27, various times
WHERE: Orlando Shakespeare Theater
TICKETS: orlandoshakes.org, 407-447-1700

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