At the Royal George Cabaret
By Dan Zeff
Chicago–This review of “Spamilton” at the Royal George Cabaret can cover only a certain percentage of the 80-minute show. I lost a portion of the performance because the actors delivered the material with such blinding speed that my ear couldn’t keep up. The situation was complicated by all the noise of the raucous opening night crowd with their clapping and laughing and cheering, downing out the actors, who weren’t stopping for anything as they motored through the material.
But what I did absorb was brilliant satire performed with incredible verbal facility and stamina by a stunning group of five local thespians, supplemented occasionally by a guest star.
“Spamilton” is a revue that satirizes the megahit “Hamilton,” which has taken over Broadway on its way to becoming probably the most artistically and commercially successful musical of our time. The show has been created, written, and directed by the great Gerard Alessandrini, whose revues of New York City musicals have become the gold standard of show business satire since his first show opened off Broadway in 1982.
“Spamilton” deconstructs “Hamilton,” starting off with a rapid run through of the show’s history and returning from time to time to satirize Lin-Manuel Miranda, the architect of “Hamilton.” The revue also takes satirical note of how “Hamilton” is sucking all the oxygen from the Broadway scene. Alessandrini tweaks collateral matters, like the difficulty some viewers have following the storyline, and, of course, the impossibility of getting tickets to the show. Manuel composed much of “Hamilton” as rap music, so Alessandrini skewers rap up down and sideways as pseudo hip, self important, and incomprehensible.
But Alessandrini doesn’t limit the show to a comic shredding of “Hamilton.” The man is one of the great historians of American musical theater and “Spamilton” extends to references of decades of musicals, some familiar, some obscure (“The Unsinkable Molly Brown” anyone?). Alessandrini has particular fun with the work of Stephen Sondheim, ingeniously rewriting lyrics from such Sondheim scores as “Company,” “Into the Woods,” and “Sweeny Todd,” lampooning the composer’s absence of melody and his syllable-laden lyrics.
By the end of the evening, Alessandrini has taken pot shots at what seems like every musical of the last century, from the most recognizable hits to clunkers like “Big” and “Aspects of Love.” Some references last only a few seconds but that’s sufficient time to draw satirical blood. Alessandrini obviously is no admirer of what the Walt Disney Corporation has done to Broadway with its saccharine musical spectacles and his most cutting observations are directed at Mouse House epics like “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”.
Alessandrini doesn’t shy away from getting personal with the luminaires of the musical stage, starting with Barbra Streisand, who grouses on how “Hamilton” smothers all the awards, and slips in in a delicious zinger noting the foul-up in the recent Academy Awards ceremony. Alessandrini has a sharp eye for the latest twists and turns in the theater and I suspect every performance will contain some bit that reflects the day’s entertainment headlines. There are comic references to Bernadette Peters, Taylor Swift, J. Lo, Beyonce, Bette Midler and a bunch more I can’t call up because they all whizzed by so quickly.
“Spamilton” is unashamedly an “in” show and viewers with little familiarity with the American musical theater will lose much of Alessandrini’s stiletto humor. But for devotees of the musical, “Spamilton” is a feast, but that comes with a risk. The show will attract the coterie of musical fans who will loudly show off their recognition Alessandrini’s arcane references to shows and performers. Their noisy rush to flaunt their familiarity with the genre and to proclaim themselves members of the “in crowd” of musical theater fandom is tiresome and disruptive but it’s a self indulgence other patrons will have to live with.
The performance, not to mince words, are dazzling. Alessandrini has cast the play with five brilliant performers, all with some experience in Chicagoland storefront theaters, and they never take their foot off the gas. The show may only run 80 minutes with no intermission but the energy demand of this supersonically paced show must be boggling. Yet the performers move on and off stage with impeccable precision, their movements so natural that the viewer likely won’t recognize the hours of rehearsal that went into this seamless production. Gerry McIntyre’s choreography helps keep the production in perpetual rhythmic motion.
The ensemble’s facility with the show’s rap lyrics is breathtaking. The words just keep on coming, the rhymes cascading across the footlights. The complex production was in flawless shape on opening night, with nary a verbal flub or missed cue.
The five-member ensemble consists of Eric Andrew Lewis, Donterrio Johnson, and David Robbins, all black; Yando Lopez, Hispanic; and Michelle Lauto, white. The casting is in line with the diversity of the Broadway ensemble, but these performers are sensational regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity. Lopez in particular is a hoot as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Lauto is a striking young lady who has the acting chops and vocal versatility that should carry her upward and onward in the musical theater.
Pianist Adam LaSalle provides the musical accompaniment off stage and also does a solo recitation proclaiming, and lamenting, the end of the gay dominance of Broadway theater, thanks to “Hamilton.” It was a showstopper in an evening of peak moments. Christine Pedi is the guest star who occupies the Streisand chair in the ensemble. Presumably this will be a role regularly fulfilled by guest stars.
The physical production is minimal, with the action confined to the small stage dominated by a full-length “Hamilton” poster that conceals many of the entrances and exits. The cast wears Dustin Cross’s costume designs that broadly convey the late 18th century time frame. The rest of the designers are Milo Bue (scenery), Andy Kloubec (lighting), Matt Reich (sound), Jamie Karas (props), and Leah Munsey-Konops (wigs).
“Spamilton” is committed to playing through May 28 but there is no reason the show can’t remain at the intimate Cabaret as long as “Hamilton” plays in the Loop, which could be the rest of the decade. Agreed, “Spamilton” does cater to people who know their musical theater, but the cast is a continuous joy, and the abundance of Alessandrini’s accessible wit and cleverness should delight all comers.
“Spamilton”” is selling tickets through May 28 at the Royal George Cabaret, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $59 to $99. Call 312 988 9000 or visit www.spamilton.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars.
Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com March 2017
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