Stage and film director Mike Nichols has been around so long that he, like, owes King Arthur a couple bucks. And I say that without a trace of irreverence. The guy's been tearing up both disciplines since the 1960s, with classic movies like The Graduate and plays like The Little Foxes to his credit. At 78, he's won an Oscar, two Emmys, seven Tonys and a planetful of other stuff. He does show a preference for Neil Simon's work, but that just goes to show he can pull a production out of his ass even without characters, a script or a single original idea.
But it was a surprise to learn, as I did when Monty Python's Spamalot opened on Broadway in 2005, that Nichols was at it again. Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam—anybody of any standing in the zany Python family surely had drawn a better bead on this musical, the stage adaptation of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet there Nichols stood amid his colossal expertise on actors, acting and, above all, the profound differences between cinematic and stage portrayals. Without question, he's one of the greatest actor's directors of all time. And courtesy of Broadway/San Diego, he's served up a nutty, excellent Spamalot and placed a serious feather in local theater's cap.
Everybody in the history of the universe knows the story, if only because everybody in the history of the universe knows the Holy Grail film. It's based on the Arthurian legend, wherein King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table defend England from its 6th-century Saxon invaders and find the Holy Grail in the process. The grail, of course, is the wine vessel Jesus supposedly used at the Last Supper—and you'll never believe where Arthur (Christopher Gurr) and his right arm, Sir Lancelot du Lac (Matthew Greer), unearth it. They do it the hard way, enduring the slings and arrows of a surly French guard (“I fart in your general direction; your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries!”), a prima donna Lady of the Lake (“I am sick of my career / Always stuck in second gear”) and the
11th-hour revelation that Lance is as gay as a tangerine.
Arthur's legend is largely the stuff of invention, and historians aren't even sure he existed—amid that uncertainty, the prospects for outlandishness shoot off the charts. Nichols and choreographer Casey Nicholaw thus pull out the stops, from Broadway send-ups (“Song That Goes Like This,” “His Name is Lancelot”) to corpses that dance (“I'm Not Dead Yet”)—and every step of the way, Nichols uses the stage for the character-development tool it is, turning modest bits of business into forces of nature. This is bawdy, pee-your-pants fun; Idle's good book and better lyrics are in the best of hands.This review is based on the matinée performance of Aug. 22 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Spamalot runs through Sept. 13 at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., Downtown. $18-$87. 619-570-1100, www.broadwayasd.com.