David Arisco wasn’t a huge fan of the British comedy troupe Monty Python before company member Eric Idle had an idea. He would apply the group’s witty, goofy aesthetic to one of the few entertainment forms it hadn’t already conquered: the Broadway musical. Monty Python’s Spamalot, winner of the 2005 Tony Award as best musical, became a smash.
And Arisco, the longtime artistic director at Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables, finally became a Python aficionado.
“I saw it after the Tonys, and I wanted to do it as soon as the rights were released,” says Arisco, whose production of Spamalot had to wait while the show did several national tours. “The show was just too much fun not to do it with the people we have down here. … Eric Idle and [director] Mike Nichols did a good job; it has all the Python bits and great numbers for all the musical theater geeks out there.”
Opening at Actors’ this weekend, Spamalot is based on the 1974 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It follows the misadventures of King Arthur and his oddball knights as they embark on a quest to find the Holy Grail. The show incorporates characters, bits and songs from the Python oeuvre: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the Killer Rabbit, the French taunters, the knights who say “ni,” Tim the Enchanter. It also sends up musical theater, everything from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melody recycling in Phantom of the Opera to the bottle dance from Fiddler on the Roof.
Arisco cast the show’s major roles with South Florida-based talent but brought in a favorite leading man, four-time Carbonell Award winner Gary Marachek, to play King Arthur. Marachek, who estimates he has done “25 to 30” shows for Arisco, also became a Python convert when he saw Spamalot on Broadway.
“I loved it. I hadn’t laughed so hard since I saw The Producers,” says Marachek. “My Arthur is a little more physical — friendly, stern when he has to be, charming, likeable. I play kind of a straight guy to everyone else’s over-the-topness.”
In principal roles, “everyone else” includes three cast members from Zoetic Stage’s recent production of Assassins: Shane Tanner as Sir Galahad, Gabriel Zenone as Sir Robin and Lindsey Forgey as the Lady of the Lake. Jim Ballard plays a different Sir Lancelot, Wayne LeGette is Sir Bedevere, and Paul Louis is King Arthur’s faithful servant Patsy, the guy who claps two coconut shells together to make the sound of Arthur’s clip-clopping horse.
Carbonell winner Ballard, who has also played Sir Lancelot in the far-more-traditional Camelot, says his Spamalot character is something completely different.
“He’s not from France, for one thing. He’s a grunt from the sewers of England who becomes a knight. He’s the homicidally brave one, and at the end, there’s a big reveal,” the actor says.
Tanner, whose Galahad is transformed by the Lady of the Lake from a muddy farmer into a vain and dashingly handsome knight, recalls that his early exposure to Python humor happened in secret.
“I grew up in a conservative Christian household, and I wasn’t allowed to watch the movies. So of course, I sought them out,” he says. “It’s fun to go into a show where you’re always laughing and having a good time, where you have fantastic people onstage and great music.”
Forgey, who finds the Spamalot music “beautiful but hilarious,” loves that the characters and audience are in on the jokes together. Carbonell winner LeGette, who confesses he started campaigning for a role minutes after he learned Arisco was doing Spamalot, says he loves “how twisted and stupid” the characters are. Zenone contrasts the intricacies of singing Sondheim in Assassins with singing the Spamalot score.
“Sondheim is about words, rhythm, counterpoint and harmony. This is really about the words. But I don’t know that this is any easier,” he observes.
Arisco, who has an affinity for directing comedy, knows he’s not serving up sophisticated laughs in Spamalot. Still, goofy can be funny too.
“The Monty Python humor is so ridiculously twisted, so foolish,” Arisco says. “But I dare anybody not to smile.”