Left to Right: Jeff Wiseman, Brian Thiele, Murray Melnychuk, Photo Credit: Darren Stewart
January 11 – 26th
Victor Mitchell Theatre
I’ve recently been asked why, as a professional theatre critic, I bother reviewing Community Theatre productions. People cite the fact that these shows are generally not up to expert standards, are often are cast with what is available as opposed to who is suitable and are usually done–to-death, crowd-pleasing safe musicals that trade solely on nostalgia. The answer is simple – my primary goals as a critic is to make people aware of what’s going on theatrically, to encourage them to think critically about what they see and most of all to engender an excitement and love of the theater so that audiences will support this amazing artistic expression.
For many people, Community Theater is the only type of production they attend. Whether this is because of ticket price or production taste or simply because their son or daughter happens to be in the show. Frankly I don’t care why they attend, I’m just so happy that they do! It takes a tremendous effort to put on these shows and I have been very fortunate to see some performances in Calgary that rivaled professional productions on many levels. It also takes a giant effort to get off your duff on a snowy, cold Sunday afternoon in the dead of winter to see a play. But that’s what a near full house did for Front Row Centre’s production of Spamalot this past weekend. That’s a lot of sweat and work and hope and anticipation in one theatre. Shouldn’t I put in the same work considering the production? Obviously as you can see, my answer is yes.
Monty Python’s Spamalot is a musical comedy “lovingly ripped off” from the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Like the movie, the musical is a cheeky spoof of the Arthurian legend. The musical however goes one step further parodying the Broadway musical process as well as flushing out some of the well-known Phython-esque humour. Eric Idle, a member of the Monty Python team, wrote the musical’s book and lyrics and the show went on to win three Tony Awards, including the award for Best Musical of the 2004–2005 season.
From the reaction I saw at Front Row Centre’s production of the show, the audience heartily agreed with the accolades. They laughed enthusiastically at the jokes, even though it was apparent that most audience members knew the bits well from undoubtedly numerous viewings of the cult classic film. Yes, the Black Knight who loses his arms and legs, yet still wants to fight is included in this show. As are the Knights who say Ni, the “Bring out yer Dead” bit, the rabbit with a killer instinct and of course the ridiculous but strangely still funny coconut-clacking, horseless riders. But with some hit and miss performances and at times clunky direction, I couldn’t help wondering if the laughs were actually resulting from the action on stage or if much of the delight was familiarity and memory-based.
I will admit to being a Python fan back in the day, and while dipping once again into their vault doesn’t excite me all that much anymore, I can find some affection for the old gags. So from a story-line and writing point of view, Spamalot, even with the addition of some new material, was nothing more than a nice memory of what used to make me laugh. The biggest issue for me however was the show’s lack of lead actor(s) talent. Neither King Arthur (a stiffly mediocre Mike Beattie) nor his band of Knights had the chops to make their solos sound anything but passable. Of the bunch, only Sir Galahad (the long-maned rakish Doug Keeling) and Sir Lancelot (the sweetly earnest James McGowan) were able to let go enough to pull off their quirky characters despite slipping in and out of accents that were cringe-worthy at best.
Thankfully, the supporting cast was there to pick up the slack. Most notably the spectacularly voiced Carlyn Miller as the Lady of the Lake, a new character to the story whose main purpose is to urge on the plot and provide a bulk of the show’s piss-taking out of the Broadway experience. Also delightful was Colton Duane as Arthur’s working-class assistant, Patsy, who seemed to be the only performer on stage who could stay in character/accent while doing wonderful double duty as a strong actor/singer. A couple minor characters also stood out as better than the rest. Hayley Feigs gave us a screechingly funny Mrs Galahad and Brian Thiele as an anti-singing father was the closest thing to a true Python performance I saw all afternoon.
Director Janos Zeiler kept a mostly tight flow on the production, but seemed not to know what to do with his crowd scenes where more often than not, actors simply stood around awkwardly and rather unprofessionally. Danielle Desmarais’ choreography which was executed by a chorus of “Laker Girls” was fairly run of the mill with far too many missed cues and out of step performers, but one dancer did stand out for me and kept my eye the entire performance. Through her energetic moves and adorable positive energy, Ginette Simonot’s dancing was a joy to watch and more than once I couldn’t help tap my toe along with her fabulous efforts.
Kudos as well to the entire set design and costume team who managed to populate the stage with castles and ships and monsters and very cute gore-ridden equivalents. Even if the action on the stage wasn’t always up to snuff, the look of the show was sharp and made a lot out of the resources available.
For the purist Monty Python fan – No one can pull off those characters like the original cast can. And while there are some decent performances in this show, you will be left with the unsatisfied feeling you had when your high school friends did Python imitations over and over and over. SKIP IT
For light Monty Python fans– the jokes may be old but many of them are still quite funny and enough are done passably to get a giggle out of you. MAYBE SEE IT
You’ve never seen Holy Grail? – If you had an eccentric sense of humour and want a decent-enough, silly time in the theatre this may work for you. MAYBE SEE IT
For Kids – Apart from some foul language and one sexy PG rated gay scene, kids will probably find much of the show funny. I heard one young lad laughing his head off the entire show. MAYBE SEE IT