At the Mercury Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Mercury Theater artistic director L. Walter Stearns has a remarkable gift for reviving large-sized musical comedy hits, downsizing them to fit the limited resources of his theater, and still coming up with a production that gives as much pleasure as the big ticket originals. Consider Stearns’s wondrous stagings of shows like “The Producers,” “The Addams Family,” and “Avenue Q.” Stearns has done it again, this time with the production-challenging satire “Spamalot.”
“Spamalot” is formally titled “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” the show being inspired by the 1969-1974 TV skits. The skits made the British comedy troupe called Monty Python’s Flying Circus an international sensation for audiences who appreciated uproarious and biting satire. The skits iled to the 1975 feature length film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and finally to “Spamalot,” which premiered in Chicago in 2004 and went on to much success on Broadway and elsewhere.
The show is set in the Middle Ages and very loosely based on the legendary King Arthur and his search for the Holy Grail. But there is no coherent storyline, just a series of mostly hilarious and very witty and clever sketches that shift from the forests of medieval Britain to modern Broadway and Las Vegas. The book and music, mostly composed by Python member Eric Idle, gleefully wallow in low humor (fart jokes, gay jokes, scenes of gory comedy) and cutting edge audacity, typified by the number “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (If You Don’t Have Any Jews)” So “Spamalot” doesn’t mind reveling in vulgarity, cheerfully kneeing good taste in the groin, and that helps make the show so endearing.
I’d seen “Spamalot” twice before the Mercury presentation and both laid on the extravaganza and special effects with a generous hand. The Broadway original had two dozen performers, including a large chorus. The Mercury Theater makes up with eight principal performers, many in multiple roles, and a six member chorus. But there is no sense of skimpiness in Stearns’s staging. A whirlwind of singing and dancing in the production numbers generates enough energy for a company twice its size. The three female and three male performers who make up the mini chorus are especially expansive in selling themselves as a full high stepping Broadway level chorus.
The Mercury may not have the technology to convey the visual dazzle that was a major factor in the original version. But there is plenty of historical atmosphere and theatrical whiz bang in the sound and lighting designs (by Carl Wahlstrom and Denise Karczewski respectively) and Angie Weber Miller’s all-purpose multi level set. But what really sells the show visually is Tim Hatley’s costume design, an enormous wardrobe of faux medieval outfits that require countless changes demanding split second precision back stage. Serena Sandoval is given the title of costume coordinator and wardrobe supervisor and the smooth transitions in the on stage action owe much to her organizational skills. Matthew Zelinski contributes the properties, including a large stuffed cow dropped from the French ramparts.
To bring this show up to the satirical mark, Stearns has gathered an exemplary cast of mostly unfamiliar (to me) performers who sell the madcap action with the necessary droll wit and raunchy humor it demands. There is a lot of silliness in ”Spamalot” and it requires continuous comic discipline to keep the action from overflowing into too broad laughs. Stearns and his versatile company recognize that the best way to deliver farcical humor is with a straight face. The characters talk directly to the audience and a spectator is even brought on stage for a funny cameo. There are a few moments singing that go over the top, but the entire work is an exercise in over the top comedy and the few lapses (which certainly didn’t bother the raucous opening night crowd) only validate how much of the physical and verbal comedy hit the mark.
Jonah D. Winston makes a great King Arthur, with a large stage presence, and a strong singing voice while displaying the composure of a character at the center of a maelstrom of off-the- wall humor. I loved Greg Foster in multiple roles that continuously convey a deliciously unflappable comic presence.
Karl Hamilton had the most hilarious moment as a heavily-accented French warrior hurling down comic insults from his castle ramparts at the British forces below. Meghan Murphy sells the show- stopping singing numbers as the statuesque and sexy Lady of the Lake. The remainder of the main cast consists of David Sajewich, Adam Ross Brody, Daniel Smeriglio, and Adam Fame, all exemplars of Stearns’s casting acumen.
I have nothing but praise for the inexhaustible stamina, professionalism, and high spirits of the chorus, changing costumes by the minute and dancing up a storm to Shanna Vanderwerker’s nonstop and creative choreography. They are Erica Evans, Emma Parissi, and Ariel Etena Triunfo (female) and Brandon Pisano, Colter Schmidt, and Cameron Turner (male). Music director Eugene Dizon, Stearns’s right hand man in the Mercury’s string of successes, leads the off stage orchestra that sounds far fuller than its six pieces might suggest.
The show is loaded with in jokes some viewers might not get and total enjoyment of the show does require tolerance for silliness and gross out humor. And there might be a bit of audience uneasiness over the Jews number, though I thought it was the cleverest song in the score. But the show is so disarming in its audacity and so sharp in its wit and satire that it can be recommended without hesitation. Yes, L. Walter Stearns has done it again!
The show gets a rating of.
“Spamalot” runs through November 3 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $80. Visit www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com or call 773 325 1700.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. September 2019
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