Review: Go on a quest to Sanibel, see superb 'Spamalot' at BIG ARTS

Matthew Alan Schmidt,  Jason Loete, Elizabeth Urbanzcyk and Robby May in 'Spamalot.'

Nick Adams / BIG ARTS Herb Strauss Theatre

Matthew Alan Schmidt, Jason Loete, Elizabeth Urbanzcyk and Robby May in "Spamalot."

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IF YOU GO

What: Musical version of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail

When: 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday through Feb 26.

Where: 2200 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel

Cost: $42 for adults, $20 for child 16 and under

Information: BIG ARTS Marks Box Office at (239) 395-0900, Strauss Theater box office at (239) 472-6862 or bigarts.org

Something Else: $6 toll for Sanibel Causeway, ask for seats in the South section

On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.

— They came. They saw. They sang. They danced.

Sir Robin slew the vicious Chicken of Bristol. Arthur, king of the Britons, defeater of the Saxons, sovereign of all England, vanquished the Black Knight. Audiences savored the glories (and the dancing girls) of Camelot.

And it was good. Very, very good. Spectacular even.

"Become a knight and you'll go far / in suspenders and a bra!"

"Spamalot," the musical "lovingly ripped off" from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," clip-clopped into BIG ARTS Herb Strauss Theater on Sanibel this weekend.

Much like last season's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," the crew at BIG ARTS, led this time by director/choreographer Amy Marie McCleary, prove able to conceive, plan and execute a staggeringly creative vision. Better, their success comes in a unique space that most folks would deem hostile (if not downright impossible) to a big, splashy, over-the-top fantasy musical like "Spamalot."

McCleary firmly establishes her bona fides as one of the best director/choreographer hyphenates in Southwest Florida with this show. She roots the show solidly within the silly, slapstick, snarky fun of the original Monty Python troupe. Yet, she's not afraid to embellish; witness shout-outs to "Les Miserables," "Gangnam Style" and even a sly reference to musical "Company" that sent theatre-lovers in the audience into a fit of giggles.

If perhaps not as elegantly polished and perfected as "Scoundrels," the slightly frantic, gleeful, whiz-bang atmosphere of "Spamalot" fits the show perfectly. Mounted in just 12 days, from learning the intricate choreography to building the massive set, the show represents a triumph for all involved.

"Spamalot" gallops up, down, across and through the stage. McCleary draws on her "Scoundrels" experience to again make the exciting choreography seem to float in the theater's three-quarter thrust space. Actors enter from the aisles as well as backstage. There are flips, tumbles and pirouettes.

Nearly every number - from silly opener "Finland" to "The Holy Grail" - dazzles. If there's a weak spot, it might be the few places where McCleary offers up tribute to the show's original Broadway choreography. "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," with spinning umbrellas and a tapping ensemble, just doesn't quite work in the space; it needs room.

Perhaps the best - at least my favorite on the night - comes midway through Act Two. John Ramsey, playing the cowardly Sir Robin in a flowing wig, (which he repeatedly swipes to one side in a diva-ish way) belts out calculated to offend "You Won't Succeed on Broadway (If You Don't Have Any Jews)." McCleary stages the number brilliantly - bringing out a teeny, tiny piano - think Schroeder from "Peanuts" - and letting Ramsey play the intro.

Plink. Plink. Plink. Then, he starts banging away, Jerry Lee Lewis-style before sitting on top and playing with his hands behind his back. Before long, he's tap-dancing on top, surrounded by an all-singing, all-dancing ensemble belting: "Nobody will go, sir / If it's not kosher then no show, sir / Even Goyim won't be dim enough to choose!"

McCleary also favors a dizzying, whirling style that sees the ensemble curling, twisting, folding and unfolding like a Spirograph gone mad. Coupled with Timmy Valentine's outrageously peppy costumes that go from sea shell brassieres to spangled dancing girls to a silver glitter thong for Lancelot, the stage looks like a Boca Bargoons outlet exploded. The ensemble has more costume changes than a Cher farewell tour.

Beyond McCleary's brilliant work, "Spamalot" owes at least part of its success to pitch-perfect casting. Here, the theater owes a debt to former BIG ARTS Herb Strauss Theater artistic director Justin Cowan, who filled many of the principal roles before his abrupt departure last June.

What "Spamalot" does so well - during every part of show - is exude fun. The cast obviously loves what they're doing, loves being on stage, adores performing and couldn't be more thrilled to be running around in leggings and wigs looking for wine goblet and a shrubbery to hand over to the Knights Who Say Ni. And audiences couldn't be happier to watch. Laughter rolled out again and again Monday night.

Nearly every member of the cast deserves a marquee (or an Arthurian feast) for their efforts.

■ Elizabeth Urbanczyk brings a titanic voice and radiant sensuality to her over-the-top Lady of the Lake. The "Diva's Lament" never shook the rafters so mightily.

■ Robby May delights as brawny Galahad. His "Song that Goes Like This" duet with Urbanyck features two of the best voices in the show - in one of the silliest tunes. In a second role, May offers great facial expressions and bellowing loudness as a hyper-masculine king in gaudy fur robes waving an oversize paper-mache chicken leg around like an ax.

■ Jason Loete makes for a wonderfully clueless Arthur. Loete, a Cypress Lake High teacher in real life, clearly adores his clueless cretin. I love Arthur's mis-matched verbal battles with the French, the sorcerers, the Black Night and anyone else for that matter.

■ Matthew Alan Schmidt masters multiple accents in several roles. He voices the haughty French knights as well as the overbearing sorcerer. His goofy Lancelot also rescues Prince Herbert - and discovers the joys of the Camelot "YMCA."

If there's a medieval MVP, the medal goes to Trey Compton. The actor flits in and out of the show so many times in so many different sets of clothes you wonder that he has time to breathe.

Of his five parts, two are laugh riots. Compton elevates the throwaway joke of Not Dead Fred to hilarity with a raspy voice, zombie-ish crawl and a style of dance that looks like a soaking wet scarecrow got hit by lightning.

He pops up in the second half as Herbert, the lonely little princeling trapped in a tower with an overbearing father, idiot guards, a collection of hats and lots of pink curtains. The thoroughly married Compton throws himself into the role with abandon, squealing, whimpering and cavorting in gold slippers as Lancelot bursts onto the scene. "Just think Herbert. In a thousand years time this will still be controversial."

Watch for his huge smile, wonderfully expressive face and entirely too goofy antics. In an ensemble filled with great actors, this one is even better for Compton being there.

Clifton Chadick's towering set represents castle walls that reach for the sky with ripped and torn battle banners. Crenelated towers at either side of the stage offer multi-story platforms for characters to yell down at the actors below. David A. Sexton's lighting lends the show a hip, funky feel; he makes the space transform from Camelot disco to romantic ballroom with ease.

A stunning painted back wall beckons with a vision of grassy England, sunshine, flowers and springtime. The giant wooden rabbit from the siege scene plays up the Easter Bunny joke; the "Very Expensive Forest" couldn't look cheaper, just two lonely green strips and a big cash register sound effect. One false note might be the aggressively shiny magenta fabric used in the "Camelot" dance number; the material clashes with the set and seems out of place.

Monday's performance featured a few sound issues. The show uses pre-recorded digital tracks instead of a live band. At least two sound cues started early, most noticeably on "Come With Me," where the music started, stopped, then resumed again. Performers body mics seemed to go of and on at random, although most were able to project loud enough in the small space so as not to make it a major problem.

For all that it takes place on a small stage, "Spamalot" delivers a huge blast of entertainment. The show produces thrills faster than the Knights Who Say Ni can dream up impossible quests - and makes good on every wacky promise of Monty Python madness. Think Sanibel. Think silliness. Think "Spamalot!"

What's your favorite Monty Python sketch? Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com. Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

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