Back on Broadway, ‘Spamalot’ is funnier than ever

NEW YORK — The beauty of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” is that it hews so completely to the Aristotelian unities of drama. By that I mean there’s only one fart joke.

And what a fart joke it is, in this gloriously, patently hilarious, two-hour strut-upon-the-stage of the St. James Theatre, where the musical marked its official Broadway opening Thursday night. Restored to absurdly entertaining life from the annals of Pythonian ridiculousness, the gaseous riposte in question perfumes an ancient rivalry between the French and British nations. To wit a Gallic guard atop a castle wall, played with perfect silly seasoning by Taran Killam, casts aspersions on the Anglo Saxon knights below by exclaiming oh so pompously Frenchly: “I fart in your general direction!”

Python lovers — many of them racing to the St. James these days — need no further instruction on the pedigree of this celebrated broadside. To all others, unschooled in the history of snooty Python insult humor, I say, with mild contempt: Google it. (It being the 1975 movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”)

This new “Spamalot” arrives, beefed up, gussied up and yes, even funnier than in its birthing engagement earlier this year at the Kennedy Center as part of its Broadway Center Stage series. Now that it is actually on Broadway, center stage, the revival of the Tony-winning musical by Python great Eric Idle, with John Du Prez, brings joy to a land desperately short of guffaws and chuckles and snickers and giggles.

You’ll hear them all in the St. James, where director-choreographer Josh Rhodes has assembled a crew of comic actors with the serious mission of inciting maximum laughter. Allow me to call the roll of the clowns in the retinue of King Arthur, played with wonderful, addled command by James Monroe Iglehart: There are Michael Urie, as a knight who’d rather be at a table at Sardi’s than the round table; Nik Walker, a Sir Galahad crooning the inevitable song in a musical that goes like this; saucer-eyed Christopher Fitzgerald, playing poor, overlooked second banana Patsy; Ethan Slater, as, among other things, a peasant who is not dead yet; Jimmy Smagula, whose Sir Bedevere is both dumb and dumber; and Killam, a Lancelot who finds his true sexual self, halfway through the wood.

Am I leaving anyone out? I don’t think — oh, wait, yes. Playing the Lady of the Lake, an insufferable star in her own mind, is an incandescent Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer. It’s a role that requires both a take-charge voice and a carnivore’s gift for scenery-chewing. “Spamalot” found the woman for the job in Kritzer, whose rendition of the “Diva’s Lament” in Act 2 gives her a sensational opportunity to show off her big Broadway sound and the Lady’s bigger Broadway ego. Brava diva, brava.

It has been eons since the 1969 debut of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the priceless British sketch comedy series performed by Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam. And it’s been 18 years, if you can believe it, since the premiere of this musical, founded on the Python belief that everything and everyone can be taken down a peg or two. So it may require some already-embedded appreciation of the Pythons’ brand of anarchy to wring all the potential pleasure out of the show. Even so, it doesn’t take a doctorate in comedy to get up to speed.

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“Spamalot” is animated by a loverly lack of respect for everything, including the time-honored conventions of the Broadway musical. Several jokes and numbers are lifted from other ventures, such as “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from the 1979 film “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” but the show’s best songs are inspired theater spoofs. Among them: Act 1’s “The Song That Goes Like This,” performed by Kritzer and Walker, and Act 2’s sublime “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” which spotlights the extraordinary comedic talents of Urie, who could perform an entire musical comedy with his eyes.

Rhodes is the right director for this assignment; the jokes crackle, and the production numbers sparkle. It all feels calculated to take you to your happy place. The design elements — Paul Tate dePoo III’s sets and projections, Jen Caprio’s costumes, Cory Pattak’s lighting — are thoroughly satisfying enhancements of their work in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater back in May. Fitzgerald, Slater and Killam, new to the production, fit in seamlessly. And music director John Bell and a 17-member orchestra, assisted by auditory designers Kai Harada and Haley Parcher, make it all sound so good.

I remember the original production in 2005 being a giddy diversion. I chortled back then. This time, I roared. What a gift in trying times, to share in an uproarious experience with truly funny people.

Monty Python’s Spamalot, book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by Idle and John Du Prez. Directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes. Sets and projections, Paul Tate dePoo III; music direction, John Bell; costumes, Jen Caprio; lighting, Cory Pattak; sound, Kai Harada and Haley Parcher; orchestrations, Larry Hochman. About 2 hours 20 minutes. At St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York.

Hank Peter

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