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Craig Robinson, Christian Slater, And Others Ham A Lot In 'Spamalot'

Ryan Brophy |
August 3, 2015 | 8:05 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

As my first Hollywood Bowl summer production, "Monty Python's Spamalot"—a screen-to-stage translation of the 1975 cult classic comic watershed "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"—did the absolute most, if nothing else, to show me the premise behind the entire Hollywood Bowl concept. For a quick two hours, 18,000 people clamored into the Griffith Park venue to snack on wine and cheese, enjoy wholesome conversation amidst the bucolic atmosphere, and watch some celebrities have some fun onstage performing an irreverent musical comedy that parodies Arthurian folklore. Unfortunately, this time around, none of the huge names seem to be having all that much fun in a show that, for better or worse, demands fun and exuberance in order to even slightly come across as a worthy adaptation of the film. In such a behemoth open-air venue as the Bowl, prone to high-energy concerts and electrifying musical experiences that unite an audience unlike any other, "Spamalot" feels a bit too much like an overhyped "Rocky Horror Picture Show." The producers apparently threw some out-of-work actors onstage, gave them some slightly embarrassing but culturally relevant and commercially dynamite roles, and told them to just go with it. And they kinda sorta do.

Warwick Davis and Craig Robinson in "Spamalot." Photo by Craig T. Mathew.
Warwick Davis and Craig Robinson in "Spamalot." Photo by Craig T. Mathew.

Case in point: Craig Robinson. As King Arthur, the pompous monarch who is called by God to round up a group of brave knights to seek the Holy Grail (the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper), Robinson—of "The Office" and "Pineapple Express"—brings none of his trademark physical comedy, punchy delivery, or charisma to the role at all. Though his baritone is surprisingly rich and full as a result of his background as a music teacher, it looks as though someone found Craig Robinson on the street and taught him the songs of the musical without telling him that he actually had to play a character. The first act is a bit painful to watch as Robinson mulls about uncomfortably onstage, gasping out his lines with an incredibly off-center British accent and high school drama inflection. The one thing that saves him, however, is his uproarious visual juxtaposition with Warwick Davis, who deftly plays Arthur's loyal squire and coconut-player Patsy. Davis, known to many as Professor Flitwick from the "Harry Potter" films, provides a suitably droll counter to Robinson's quasi-hammy King Arthur, often appearing to mock the ineptitude of his master while maintaining a devout and helpful disposition—especially relevant in the show's trademark number "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." In the midst of all the clumsy staging and somewhat lazy choreography throughout the show, Davis and Robinson's chemistry is almost enough to make the production less cringe-worthy.

The two other offenders of the Robinson caliber are Christian Slater as Sir Galahad and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Sir Robin. Ferguson is forgivable, as he is beloved in the Los Angeles theatre, film, and television scene through his portrayal of Mitchell on ABC's "Modern Family" and his sporadic appearances in smaller theatrical productions around the city. But his accent is no better than Robinson's and we mostly watch the exact same performance Ferguson gives as Mitchell—if Mitchell were forced into a medieval quest and told to suppress his love for all things gay, but was unable to contain it eventually. The same awkward, feminine humor and gesticulation is present throughout the whole thing and we see no nuance, despite his energy as a musical theatre performer being some of the highest in the show. Slater, however, flailed hopelessly in the chaos of the show. He screeches his way through the entire production, as if to remind the audience that he is Christian Slater and is, in fact, famous, yet still manages to make us forget entirely about him. It doesn’t help that some of Galahad's best scenes from the film are absent in the stage production, as they might have been able to provide some leverage for Slater's pathetic shot at being funny and entertaining. But it's just a dull portrayal of several dull characters. The most exciting turn Slater has is his portrayal of the fearsomely masculine Swamp King with a son who only wants to sing and be saved by his own personal Prince Charming, but even then, Slater merely regurgitates the lines from the movie while turning a desperate ear to the audience, hoping and praying that they will think he is doing it justice. Sorry about your luck, Christian. We don't buy it, and we don't buy you.

For all of its shameless A-list production value, however, the show does have notable highlights in Merle Dandridge's Lady of the Lake, Rick Holmes' relentlessly funny cycle of characters, and Monty Python's own Eric Idle as the Historian and Narrator. Dandridge brings Mariah Carey, Ariana Grande, and every other insufferable Hollywood diva you can think of to the production, and boasts an incredibly exaggerated but still stunning vocal belt that will leave you prostrating yourself for more after such stunning numbers as "Find Your Grail" and "What Ever Happened to My Part?" Holmes delivers the best acting performance of the show, inhabiting the characters of Sir Lancelot, the French Taunter, the Knight of Ni, and Tim the Enchanter. His comic timing is truly reminiscent of Monty Python itself, and he brings a sense of timelessness and nostalgia to the show which elevates it from a mere stage translation of a film to a celebration of a groundbreaking and historical comedy group. And who can help but to stand up and cheer when Eric Idle, the man behind the film, the group, and the musical itself, walks out onstage in an adorable tweed suit and delivers one-liners that advance the story forward and keep us engaged in his fundamentally hysterical work.

Idle is the final one to take a bow during curtain call, after which the entire cast joins in a reprise of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." This moment, despite the shortcomings of the production itself, rightly feels like the proper send-off to the crowd and expresses adequate gratitude for their active, yet most likely unconscious, participation in such a grand gesture of arts advancement as the Hollywood Bowl summer series. Though the show was a bit of a catastrophe, it brought notable celebrities and enormous amounts of people to the theatre, which is not an easy feat in Los Angeles. But if the producers could just get big names that are far more engaging and talented than the ones we saw in "Spamalot," I do not hesitate to say that it could be an incredible move to revitalize theatre and give worth to its commercial prospects in this city. They may have tried with "Spamalot," but they can learn from its merit and use it as a stepping stone to bigger and better shows at the Hollywood Bowl in the future.

"Monty Python's Spamalot" runs for three performances only -- Friday, July 31 at 8:00pm, Saturday, August 1 at 8:00pm, and Sunday, August 2 at 7:30pm -- at the Hollywood Bowl (2301 N Highland Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90068). Single tickets may be purchased online at hollywoodbowl.com, ticketmaster.com or via phone at (323) 850-2000 or (800) 745-3000 or at the box office. Box office hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 12:00pm - 6:00pm.

To reach Staff Reporter Ryan Brophy, click here.

For more Theater and Dance coverage, click here.



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