Theater Review: More than ham in Timber Lake’s ‘Spamalot’

Timber Lake's production of "Spamalot." (Photo provided by Timber Lake Playhouse)

By Bill Beard
Theater Critic

I was never a fanatical fan of Britain’s favorite comedy group, Monty Python. They have been popular worldwide since their early days in the 1960s, but they always seemed a bit over the top for me. I did, however, enjoy their movie The Life of Brian, and I have followed the fantastic careers of the individual comedians in the group. John Cleese is probably one of the most natural comedy actors of this — or any — age (although I must admit that I found his frantic farcical fun in Fawlty Towers just a bit too frenetic for me).

Their earlier success, a television series called Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was the cooperative effort of six talented comedy writers: Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Their work definitely reflected the influence of the popular “Spike” Milligan, as well as the brilliant earlier group, Beyond the Fringe (starring Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Alan Bennet and Jonathan Miller). They brought their show to Broadway in 1962. I loved it, and comparing the two groups later, I just felt that with the Python’s stuff, “a little bit goes a long way.”

Consequently, when Spamalot, The Musical (based extensively on their first movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, plus “bits and pieces” from many of their other “bits and pieces”) did its tryout preview run in Chicago’s Shubert Theatre several years ago, I decided to pass up the chance to review it. When it became such a hit (and remained so popular for so long), I tried to convince myself I didn’t really care.

Then, Timber Lake Playhouse finally revealed that Spamalot would be part of this year’s schedule (after months of secrecy during which they were not allowed to announce that they were one of first theaters to be allowed to do a regional performance). Their big surprise of the 2013 summer season was to be Spamalot. I thought, “OK, I’ve been given a chance to repent, give in and do the honest thing!”

So, this past weekend, I found three avid “Pythoners,” and off we went to that wonderful little “summer theater in the deep woods” near Mt. Carroll, Timber Lake Playhouse, where one of our favorite regional actors, John Chase, was performing the lead role of King Arthur.

Now, I could just say: “It was great! It’s definitely worth the trip to Mt. Carroll! Take a picnic and enjoy the theater’s beautiful grounds and umbrella-ed lawn tables!” and end this review right here. But there really are some other wonderful things and people to mention.

First things first: the ensemble — good-looking, talented, versatile; capable of handling dozens of different characters, acting styles, crazy choreography, plus a challenging musical score and all this with a true sense of fun and boundless energy for the show’s consistently demanding pace. Just handling the various accents — German, French, Yiddish — all with Python comedy spoof style, is tricky. From the false opening Finnish scene, with its hilarious “Fisch Schlapping Song” through the parody of Fiddler on the Roof, with its bottle dance with Holy Grails, this cast had a ball.

The skeleton of the story, and believe me, it’s “barely” skeletal, revolves around King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail and his attempt to recruit new knights for his Round Table. His assistant, Patsy, a combination of servant, valet, adviser and horse (supplying coconut shell hoof sounds), is played by the marvelous Matthew C. Webb of the Savannah College of Art and Design (who was equally effective last week as the Mayor in TLP’s hilarious comedy, Uneccessary Farce). His flawless comedic sense is a strong complement to John Chase’s steady, somber, somewhat under-stated King Arthur.

Supplying the feminine mystique, in the character of The Lady of the Lake is the popular guest artist Sherriese Hamilton, whose voice is perfect for the lovely, “Come With Me,” the ballad she uses to magically turn the reluctant Dennis Galahad into a new knight for the Round Table. Then, she and the new Sir Galahad, played by Brandyn Day of Baldwin Wallace University and The Stella Adler Studio of Acting in NYC, sing a love song duet with a wonderful twist, “The Song That Goes Like This!”, a clever spoof of generic musical theater songs.

Certainly the outstanding performer on the stage is the multiply schizophrenic Mr. Cody Jolly, currently a student at the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University in St. Louis, and new to Timber Lake this summer. His show-opener role as the “Historian” is absolutely spot on, setting the Monty Python style with absolute perfection. As a matter of fact, Cleese and Company would be thrilled with this actor; he moves from scene to scene, from character to character, with complete ease and precise definition; finishing with the character of the fey young Prince Herbert, desperately trying to escape from an arranged marriage, being forced upon him by his overbearing, music-hating father, the King of Swamp Castle.

Enter Sir Lancelot, who not only saves the Prince, but realizes he must come out of the closet and marry Prince Herbert himself. [This is the only character Mr. Jolly perhaps pushes just a bit over the top, but who cares?]. Sir Lancelot is played by the handsome Brandon Jess Ford of Los Angeles. Mr. Ford has been a guest artist at TLP for several seasons. I remember his superlative work in Sunset Boulevard, when he was doing extensive work with the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. He fits into this cast and this show perfectly.

The artistic staff of this production deserves special kudos. Director Derek Bertelsen (who, from his bio, seems not to have directed musicals before) has done a great job of creating just the right style, and though the Python style is very distinct and appears obvious, it is not that simple to establish and to maintain at the right level throughout. The choreography by new-this-year Cameron Turner and TLP Artistic Director James Beaudry is excellent; and Music Director Cindy Blanc does a marvelous job with an ensemble of seven other instrumentalists in creating a balanced and very professional pit orchestra. Scenery and lighting work well, and costumes from a commercial shop in Batavia were elaborate and exactly correct.

Obviously, I recommend this show to everyone … unless you are the fussy, farce-fearer I used to be. But this is just a crazy, free-wheeling fun fest. Go expecting an absolutely insane evening; you‘ll get it.

Spamalot plays through Aug. 11. For information, phone (815) 244-2035.

From the Aug. 7-13, 2013, issue

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