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Joel Trinidad serves up plate of ‘Spamalot’

Bright side of life: King Arthur’s Knights go for a selfie moment during Monty Python’s Spamalot. Photos by JOVEN CAGANDE

Filipinos and Spam. You could say it’s a match made in heaven. So bringing Monty Python’s Spamalot here seems like a natural evolution. Of course, other than a throwaway line during King Arthur’s Song, there isn’t really that much canned ham to speak of in Upstart Productions’ version of the Tony award-winning Broadway hit. Though there is a great deal of hammy performing.

And that’s a good thing, because Spamalot requires a commitment to a level of silliness that we take for granted nowadays, when real-life White House spokesmen debate the size of the US president’s inauguration crowd, and spokeswomen tell CNN that there are such things as  “alternative facts.”

Birthed in the late ’60s, Monty Python like a virus that affects only a certain percentage of the population. Some “get” the classic lines (and repeat them ad nauseam, usually in British or high-pitched tones), while others scratch their heads or cringe in embarrassment. Ever since Python cast member Eric Idle decided to turn their classic movie comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, into a smash Broadway musical, the virus has spread from country to country. For Upstart directors Joel Trinidad and Nicky Treviño, it helped that many in the cast were already die-hard Python fans. “There are a lot of nerds here,” points out Dean Rosen, who plays Lancelot as well as the Black Knight (the one who infamously continues to pick a fight with King Arthur after his arms and legs are lopped off). “I’m a third-generation Monty Python fan. Because we’re such geeks, we put in a lot of pop culture things and up-to-date references and made it our own.”

 

 

 

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Director Trinidad had to walk a fine line between strict faithfulness to the script and wide-open comic ad-libbing. “Nicky and I conduct our rehearsals this way: we have our vision, then we release the cast. We say, ‘Don’t ask permission. Show us.’ If we like it, we’ll keep it.”

It’s a balance that mostly works in Spamalot, though one could quibble about some of the accents and ad-lib choices. (The Taunting Frenchmen scene could surely use some tightening up.) The thing with Monty Python is that there really isn’t a lot of room for improv: every line written and recited by Terry Jones, Michel Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman has been etched in stone for fans. There is a strong audience expectation that lines will be said with the same nuances, the same accents. Fans are geeks, after all. “The thing about Python is it’s really tricky,” says Lorenz Martinez, playing Arthur in the press preview. “You have to pay tribute, in a sense. But we also tried to steer away from the Broadway content to truly create from reading the script.”

There are physical gags — slow-motion running, tap-dancing bits, the sight of Tim the Enchanter hanging from a wire above the stage, slowly rotating while he plays the scene, as the actors struggle to maintain their composure — added to the script. A standout of the show is Rachel Alejandro as The Lady of the Lake. The pop diva found it challenging to shift into comedy. “It was kind of hard for me. To be honest, I was so envious, because from day one of rehearsals, they were just playing, just throwing it away, and I felt like (cries) ‘When am I gonna get there?’” Decked out in glitzy dresses by Francis Libiran, she definitely gets there. Trinidad’s production plays up the Vegas aspect of Spamalot, with show tunes that erupt, inexplicably, into an appearance by the LA Laker Girls, and another where Alejandro sports a foot-high Afro wig to belt out Find Your Grail.

It’s worth noting that Idle’s Broadway show got a lot of bad reviews from fellow Python cast members who declined to participate. (though they were happy enough to cash the large checks they received); they felt it was a pointless regurgitation of old bits, dressed up as a musical. It was. But it brought something to Broadway that was just then starting to emerge: the birth of meta consciousness, playing with audience’s expectations of musicals. From The Producers through Spamalot and The Book of Mormon, there’s a lot of latitude now to play with Broadway conventions. Martinez and Alejandro do much of the heavy lifting here with tunes like The Song That Goes Like This (“Once in every show, there comes a song like this/A sentimental song that casts a magic spell/They all will hum along, we’ll overact like hell/For this is the song that goes like this…”), The Diva’s Lament (“Whatever happened to my part?”) and Arthur’s ironic I’m All Alone (with faithful Patsy singing counterpart). The fourth wall never stops breaking in this show.

While one could argue that Spamalot doesn’t have a lot to say in these troubled times (though there is the classic bit in the beginning about how kings get appointed, etc.), it might be the kind of tonic people need. The preview audience included a lot of young millennial faces, so clearly the gags — corny at times — are not lost on them. Silliness coming back into fashion? Who would’ve thunk it? Call it our Game of Groans.

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Monty Python’s Spamalot has a limited run at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza in Makati: all Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays between July 28 and Aug. 12. It features several exclusive gowns by renowned designer Francis Libiran, and a very large wooden rabbit. Tickets run from P1,000 (Balcony) to P2,000 (Orchestra Center). Visit their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/upstartproductionsinc/) for info or to buy a show. Call Ticketworld at 891-9999.

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