Music Theatre of Denton’s Spamalot can’t claim to be original in sound or in content.
The musical was born from years of work by surrealist English comedy troupe, Monty Python. The sketch group hit it big in Britain and in the states in the 1970s. The group’s television series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, debuted in North America in 1970 and maintained its popularity here through the 1980s, both because of syndication of Flying Circus and the broad popularity of the cult films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a movie that lampooned the New Testament in much the same way Holy Grail lampooned the grand British legend of King Arthur.
Holy Grail suggests that Arthur is a ditzy royal who loves the pomp of mystical Merlin-ized kingship rather than reality. The film skewers the Knights of the Round Table as a goofy band of half-wits on a quest for a cup that — if it existed — would be in the Middle East, not the forests of Britain (which are infested with the Plague, snotty French nobles and marauding Saxons).
But as musical director Arturo Ortega explains, familiarity ought not to be confused with ease. In fact, musicians and performers alike have donated a goodly amount of sweat to bring the blockbuster Broadway musical to the Denton stage — enjoying it all the while.
“The whole musical is just a series of quotations,” said Ortega, who took the baton for the Denton staging of The Color Purple last year. “There’s very little original music in this show, and there are a lot of jazz renaissance pieces. You can’t bring in just any great concert musician to do jazz.”
Ortega ventured as far as his workplace, the University of North Texas College of Music, to find some musicians from the top lab bands in the UNT Jazz Studies program. He recruited two reed players from the jazz program to join a dozen musicians.
As playful as the performers are, the musicians are expected to bring the same sense of jolly adventure and wink-wink-nudge-nudge to both the score and the cast.
“There are a lot of jokes in the music,” Ortega said. “And there is a lot of back and forth banter between the actors and me.”
One such joke in the musical comes in a big number about Lancelot in the second act. The knight, drawn in legend as a fearless defender of chivalry, is converted from burly, sword-brandishing knight to newly minted gay rescuer of Prince Herbert, who’d rather not get married to seal his dad’s royal might.
“The big Lancelot number is a disco song,” Ortega said.
Of course it is.
Brynne Huffman, the musical’s only leading Lady of the Lake, said the makers of Spamalot took a loving swipe at musical theater (and the performers who love them).
Every character in the musical is also a performer in a typical Broadway musical – very meta, Huffman said.
The Lady of the Lake calls for a diva who can handle R&B, opera, musical theater, gospel and nightclub singer styles. And the diva who plays her, Huffman said, is disgruntled with her scant time on stage.
“Honestly, I think the show is spot-on about musical theater and divas,” Huffman said. “The diva behind the Lady of the Lake is sick of her life, and she’s fed up and wants everyone to know it.”
Huffman said she is a fan of Sara Ramirez (Grey’s Anatomy), who originated the role on Broadway.
She was a longtime fan of Ramirez’ treatment of the character — who tips a hat not just to the romantic leading ladies of Broadway, but to Barbara Streisand and Liza Minnelli.
“Breaking the fourth wall is one of my favorite things to do,” Huffman said. “I did a lot of research on the Lady of the Lake. She’s gracious and very dedicated to her higher purpose. She might seem like she’s doing all these people a favor, all these knights. But she’s not, exactly. She’s really self serving. Beware. It’s all about what’s good for her.”
The diva isn’t so very different. The diva makes a lot of sacrifices to nurture her talents and further her career. And when the second act has rumbled on without her divine intervention, or her divinely trained voice.
“I went total method on that,” Huffman said. “When you do this work, you learn to accept rejection. When you’re really passionate about so many shows, and you audition and you don’t make it, it can be tough. I auditioned for this roll twice and didn’t get it in other theaters — and I was really happy for the friends of mine who ended up getting those parts. But when you are really passionate, and you work and you audition and don’t get the parts you want to play, and you realize it’s happening more as you get older? Let’s just say I get her. I get the diva.”
Huffman is a magical guide to Ted Minette’s affable and dogged Arthur. Minette (The Producers, Avenue Q) is every bit the proud and chivalrous king. He isn’t sure why he doesn’t get the deference his title is due, but he gamely carries on with his fellow nights, Kevin Wickersham’s Sir Bedevere, Eric Ryan’s cowardly Sir Robin, Sterling Gafford’s handsome and long-suffering Sir Galahad and Jake Smith’s lantern-jawed Lancelot.
The show has opened the way for newcomers, among them 19-year-old Daniel Myers, who is studying vocal performance at UNT. Myer plays several parts: Not Dead Fred, a jaunty victim of the plague, a minstrel singer and the tender Prince Herbert. Myers said Ortega told him about the show, and urged him to audition. He also grew up listening to his dad say lines from Holy Grail and Life of Brian.
“I actually auditioned for Herbert,” Myers said.
Myers plays Herbert as a cheerful teenage boy who’d rather gather flowers and blush than bed a princess.
“All I have is this impression of Herbert,” he said. “The impression is that he is in so far over his head that he pleads for a knight to rescue him.”
Herbert is locked in a castle tower by his own father, who knows his son isn’t a good candidate for royal battle or battlefield carnage.
“Part of it is a time-out and part of it is a pout,” Myers said. “Herbert can’t fume, though.”
Spamalot should play to audiences as a series of jokes — that if they laugh too long, they’ll miss a joke. For Myers, though, the musical is an endurance test for any actor.
“I’m very afraid of settling,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of a director giving a note about something I’ve done wrong. That’s the first strike. The second is the director just not mentioning it again because I didn’t fix it.”
Director Bill Kirkley praised his cast and crew — which includes Janice LaPointe-Crump as choreographer, Gail Crump as specialty scene designer and Vicki Kirkley as costume and lighting designer.
“Everyone’s worked really hard, and I’m just really proud of them,” he said.
The musical closes this weekend.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT
Who: Music Theatre of Denton
What: A musical by Eric Idle and John Du Prez
Where: the Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.
When: Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 7-8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 9. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for ages 62 and up and $10 for students and children. For reservations, call 940-382-1915.
SPAM, AN AMERICAN ICON
What’s in the can? Chopped pork shoulder, ham, salt, water, sugar, sodium nitrate and potato starch. “Aspic” is a fancy culinary term for the gelatinous, congealed layer just under the pop-top lid, and it’s the result of cooling meat stock. Hormel, which first stocked Spam on grocery store shelves in 1937, made a special tin of the potted meat exclusively for the 2005 Broadway opening of “Spamalot.”
WHAT’S ON THE MENU?
The original greasy spoon in the Monty Python sketch is the Green Midget Cafe. When a couple, named Mr. and Mrs. Bun — are literally dropped into the cafe from above, a waitress goes through the entire menu:
Egg and Bacon
Egg, Sausage and Bacon
Egg and Spam
Egg, Bacon and Spam
Egg, Bacon, Sausage and Spam
Spam, Bacon, Sausage and Spam
Spam, Egg, Spam, Spam, Bacon and Spam
Spam, Spam, Spam, Egg and Spam
Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Baked Beans, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam
Lobster Thermidot aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce, garnished with truffle pate, brandy, a fried egg on top, and Spam.