REVIEW: Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Stratford Festival

Photo by David Hou

Dated material performed well: a recurring theme for some of Ontario’s musical theatre this year.

In some ways, Monty Python’s Spamalot makes sense for a Stratford crowd, as a goofy, high-energy musical to temper the weightier Rents and Casey and Dianas. The low-stress musical whips and whirls across the small Avon Theatre stage, suggesting a world where clacked coconuts represent horse hooves and cheeky musical theatre references peal from the lyrics of the second act. With one glaring exception, the show’s held up since its 2004 Broadway debut, and director Lezlie Wade’s production excels, studded with star performances and impressive aesthetics.

You’d need a heart of stone to resist this show’s rafter-shattering enthusiasm. Spamalot, of course, is the stage adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is itself a highly oddball adaptation of the tale of King Arthur. Most of the Monty Python film’s beats have been preserved for the stage — the “bring out your dead” sequence, for instance, and the flatulent Frenchmen — but they’re enhanced by Jesse Robb’s showy choreography (including an excellent cheerleading interlude!) and Laura Burton’s tight music direction of a note-perfect band.

And wow, what a cast, from Jonathan Goad’s dreamy King Arthur to Eddie Glen’s charming, heartwarming sidekick Patsy. Jennifer Rider-Shaw as the Lady of the Lake is as powerful as she’s ever been, belting out John Du Prez and Eric Idle’s score with excellent technique and stealing every scene she’s in. The ensemble, too, has dance chops to spare, and Robb’s intense choreography gives them the space to flex their prowess without showing any signs of fatigue. Props, as well, to the props (and spangled costumes) designed by David Boechler, as well as Geoff Scovell’s appropriately off-the-wall fight direction.

All this to say, it’s a dandy, family friendly-ish production with more laughs than it knows what to do with. Python fans will likely be delighted.

But a song in the second act gives me pause about the show’s inclusion in the Stratford Festival at all. The song in question is “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” the punchline being that King Arthur and his knights, who through a silly turn of events have pivoted their sights from the holy grail to the Great White Way, won’t make it there without Jews. The song approaches the boundaries of good taste through lyrics like these: “You haven’t got a clue/If you don’t have a Jew/All of your investments you are going to lose/There’s a very small percentile who enjoys a dancing Gentile/I’m sad to be the one with this bad news.”

The song’s been changed in productions before: on the West End, the lyrics instead critiqued stunt casting, saying “you won’t succeed in showbiz if you haven’t any stars.” Similar changes were made in a Korean production, preserving the song but altering its lyrics so that they laughed with show business, rather than at the people making it happen — people already subjected to higher rates of anti-Semitic hate crimes than ever before, according to the Anti-Defamation League. There might have been room to adapt the song to a Stratford (or even just Canadian) context — and the energy in the audience might not have fallen so flat with discomfort.

I’ve wondered for a while now when we’ll get a Stratford run of Something Rotten!, the raucous 2015 musical comedy about Shakespeare (a Shakespeare musical! In Stratford!) and the theatre industry in general. In a lot of ways, Something Rotten! and Spamalot are comparable in aesthetic and scope, with glorious dance numbers and cheeky references to the grubby art of theatre-making. And it’s just as zany, too — just replace the coconut horses with a truly psychedelic, show-stopping song about eggs. There’s even more than one speaking role for women. I’d like to see the show here at some point, with all the fun of Spamalot but less of the problematic material.

On its own terms, this Spamalot plays the right notes, ekes out the right giggles, and choreographically stuns. On opening night, it seemed the whole audience shimmied in their seats, rocking out to Idle’s bops and reveling in the jokes from the beloved movie. A sensible programming choice? Maybe — I can’t speak to the prevalence of Monty Python fans in Ontario beyond Stratford’s opening week. But I hope this well-done production of a sometimes-weary text paves the way for other, less contentious musicals down the line.

Spamalot plays at the Stratford Festival until October 28. Tickets are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

6 Responses to “REVIEW: Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Stratford Festival”

  1. Big agree on the “You Can’t Succeed On Broadway” number. It soured the second act for me. It was a very bizarre experience seeing it in the Stratford crowd where you could’ve heard a pin drop when Arthur asked the crowd “are there any Jews here?” later on in the act. It felt like no one in the crowd was ‘in on the joke’ and therefore it felt really gross compared to when I saw it in NYC in 2006. The Lancelot ‘saving the fey young man and coming out’ song also feels dated and a bit icky at this point.

  2. I saw Spamlolot this week.It was fantastic.I enjoyed it so very much I told my whole family about it.The acting and dance numbers were also excellent.Kudos to everyone who made this possible.A wonderful performance.

  3. As an American Stratford enthusiast, the things that bothered the reviewers didn’t seem to bother the audience, and many of them Canadians I’m sure, I was sitting with. In fact when Goad asked if there were any Jews in the audience, a few spoke up. Audience roared.

    The Jews number is funny because it’s funny. I can’t believe there isn’t a person out there that doesn’t realize that theatre is suspension of disbelief and dreaming of being on Broadway is….well, Broadway! Didn’t Stratford’s Jesus Christ Superstar and The Importance of Being Earnest play limited Broadway runs? And guess what, Broadway is still supported by a lot of Jewish resources. The show also shamelessly pokes at Gays and that’s equally funny. Lady of the Lake is also now at least seven months pregnant and they kept referencing that, and didn’t even attempt to hide it with her costuming. Back to the Jews….

    That number didn’t fall flat when I saw it tonight! Stratford has a hit! Americans and Canadians should flock to it.

  4. Get a life ,a song that implies you can’t make money on Broadway with out a Jew is Funny and truthful. Get a life Mr Woke!

  5. I thought it will be nice to see the wonderful orchestra greeting the audience after their amazing live performance.

    The show was full of joy, and the actors and actresses were so great.

  6. Wow what a performance! Spamalot exceeded my expectations with melodrama, irreverence and humour that was delivered by an amazing cast. Close to the end of the show, we were all standing, singing and clapping in sheer joy and appreciation at having been thoroughly entertained.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor, a breaking news reporter at CP24, and a former reporter for the Toronto Star. She is former president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.