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'Spamalot' arrives with gusto

NEW YORK -- Will there ever again be a rapturous musical that isn't a parody of other musicals?

Maybe that's the wrong question, because if they keep making musicals as good as ''The Producers," ''Avenue Q," ''Urinetown," and now ''Monty Python's Spamalot," the right question is, who cares?

Just as Mel Brooks found a way to transfer his Borscht Belt irreverence from movies to theater, Eric Idle gets his Python pack's profound silliness galloping from TV and film to the bright lights of Broadway with sensibility intact, perhaps even sharpened.

From the moment Tim Curry as King Arthur comes bounding out on horseless horseback, with clopping provided by his sidekick clicking two coconut shells together, we're happily in the land of ''Monty Python and the Holy Grail," the film on which the musical is based. This is the land where victims of the plague are thrown on death carts despite their comedically plaintive cries that they haven't expired, where heroes soil their pants out of fear, and where even the stoutest of souls can be rendered helpless when the enemy intones that dreaded word ''Ni."

The production stumbles a bit in the translation to musical theater, at least in the first act. Curry seems a self-satisfied straight man as Arthur, but the humor can feel old, and there isn't much of a sense that Idle, who wrote the book and lyrics, has upped the artistic ante at all, as Brooks did with ''The Producers."

On the other hand, ''Spamalot" is never anything less than Pythonesque. The opening scene is one of those delicious non sequiturs, a big musical number set in cheery Finland before the crew ''gets it right" and shifts the scene to sackcloth-and-ashes gray Great Britain. Then David Hyde Pierce enters to lampoon Curry for pretending to ride on a horse that isn't there -- the Pythons were, after all, among television's first self-referential postmodernists.

Pierce does a fine job infusing the timid Sir Robin with the soul of Niles Crane from ''Frasier." But the real star-power kudos go to Hank Azaria (''The Simpsons," ''The Birdcage"). Azaria is a stitch as Lancelot, when he's not doing Cleese-ian turns as the French Taunter and Tim the Enchanter. John Cleese himself is the only Python represented onstage. He has now graduated to the voice of God.

Tim Hatley's set does a great job of recapturing the Python look, and Mike Nichols's directorial sensibility is completely in synch with Idle's: There's a droll acceptance of what makes life so absurd, combined with a slapstick sense of what makes the absurdity of life so silly and, ultimately, something to cherish.

It's in the second act that all of those virtues come together with real Broadway gusto -- Broadway is where the knights of the ''very round table" have to go to find the Holy Grail. It's here where Idle and co-writer John Du Prez send up everything from ''Fiddler on the Roof" to ''The Boy From Oz."

Adding zest to all of this are Sara Ramirez as a ravishing Lady of the Lake, Christopher Sieber as a Michael Bolton-like Galahad, and Christian Borle as Not Dead Fred, Prince Herbert, and a minstrel.

But while ''Spamalot" satirizes Broadway musicals, it also pays apt tribute (except to Andrew Lloyd Webber, whom Idle really despises) to the form with nods to Sondheim (''And another hundred people just contracted the plague") and to Lerner and Lowe (Pierce's show-stopping number about the absence of Jewish characters).

And when the company reprises ''Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (which is actually from ''Life of Brian") the boys have, in true Broadway bravura fashion, found their grail and followed their bliss. Joseph Campbell will be rolling in his grave.

With gales of laughter.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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