By: David Sheward
November 18, 2023: Two new productions recently opened after following winding roads to Broadway. One is a mostly faithful revival which only aims to be marvelously silly and succeeds, the other targets loftier goals and has been on a decades-long trek to the Main Stem, undergoing some changes since its Off-Broadway run, not all of them for the better. The former is a smashing new edition of Monty Python’s Spamalot, the 2005 spoof “lovingly ripped off” from the brilliantly goofy 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The latter is Harmony, the long-gestating musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a real-life singing group in 1920s and ’30s Germany, whose careers and lives were destroyed by Hitler’s anti-semitic policies. Spamalot is riotously funny while Harmony has its heart in the right place, but hits a few discordant notes along with melodious ones.
The new production of the classic Python parody of the Arthurian legend, directed and choreographed with guffaw-inducing abandon by Josh Rhodes and first seen at Washington’s Kennedy Center, maintains the outrageous irreverence of the group’s original TV series and films. A cast of expert zanies reenacts the familiar bits from the film and expanded musical sequences. Eric Idle, an original member of the legendary British comedy troupe, wrote the book and lyrics and co-composed the music with John Du Prez. All his routines and songs hold up marvelously well and there have been a few updates (presumably by Idle) including riotous gags referencing Beyonce and disgraced Congressman George Santos, plus a surprise (recorded) cameo by Steve Martin.
The cast, most of whom are repeating their performances from the Kennedy Center production, couldn’t be better. James Monroe Iglehart captures King Arthur’s pompous self-importance and frustration when confronted with peasants who have no idea they have a monarch and he’s it. Michael Urie makes a chuckle-worthy coward as the cringing Sir Robin and dazzles as he discovers his passion for musical theater, allowing for some delightful ribbing of Broadway trends.
Nik Walker is a virile Galahad, while Taran Killam, Ethan Slater, and Christopher Fitzgerald display versatility in a number of insane roles, especially Killam’s Lancelot who discovers his gay side, Slater’s Not Dead Fred and the lovelorn Prince Herbert and Fitzgerald’s Patsy (Arthur’s servant who provides the sound of horse hooves by banging two coconuts shells together). But even in this company of stratospherically high comics, Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer is an outstanding clown. As the Lady of the Lake, she satirizes noble heroine and show-biz-cliches with razor sharp precision. Paul Tate dePoo III’s cartoonish scenic and projection design and Jen Caprio’s witty costumes keep us in the wacko, off-kilter world combining medieval and modern times.
My only caveat is Rhodes tends to milk some of the famous Python bits too long. The taunting Frenchman spends several minutes blowing elaborate raspberries at Arthur’s troops and the Lady of the Lake’s faux lounge act introducing us to the court at Camelot lingers a bit too long. Mike Nichols who staged the 2005 version wisely let the jokes stand alone without added directorial embellishment. But better too many laughs than too few and this Spamalot has enough for two or three shows.
From unbridled comedy we go to dark tragedy. At the other end of the theatrical spectrum, Harmony from pop icon Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman tackles one of modern history’s greatest atrocities by musical means. It premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997 and played Atlanta and Los Angeles before premiering Off-Broadway at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in 2022. Then this tuner, based on the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, was uneven with too many melodramatic moments but they were balanced out by Warren Carlyle’s innovative staging and some clever, Brechtian numbers. In the transfer to Broadway, one of my favorites musical sequences has been cut, lessening the show’s sharp, satiric edge. However, there are still enough captivating and moving vignettes, particularly the specialty numbers arranged by Manilow and John O’Neill and performed with stunning vocal virtuosity by the sextette playing the Harmonists, to put the production in the plus column.
The basic plot structure remains the same as it did Off-Broadway. The six-member singing group rose to fame in the late 1920s and early ’30s. They played around the world including Carnegie Hall and even had an offer to play Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies, but opted to remain in Germany, hoping Hitler’s nightmarish regime would “blow over.” Because three members were Jewish, the Nazis eventually banned the group, scattering them to either fight at the front, flee to other countries or to suffer in concentration camps. The story is narrated by the sole survivor into the 21st century, nicknamed Rabbi from his previous religious experience. Chip Zien repeats his passionate performance, leading us through the group’s devastating story, often taking on famous personae such as Albert Einstein and Richard Strauss (his drag turn as Marlene Dietrich has been unfortunately eliminated).
The show does move at a faster clip than it did Off-Broadway, but I miss one stunning coup de theater. At the top of the second act, we’re supposedly at the Ziegfeld Follies and the Harmonists perform a delightfully campy production number called “We’re Goin’ Loco” where they support the dazzling Josephine Baker (an irresistible Allison Semmes), with bongo drums and a wink to Carmen Miranda’s nuttiness and Baker’s own banana dance. In the midst of this glorious madness, Rabbi announces they never did work with Baker, but returned to Hitler’s Germany. Off-Broadway, the scene abruptly transitioned to a grim steamship embarkation with dark ominous music. Musical hijinks clasjed with harsh reality. Much more effective and chilling than Rabbi’s simple announcement.
There are still excessive melodramatic scenes such as the one with the group sharing a train with Der Fuehrer and the young Rabbi imagining grabbing a gun from Hitler’s bodyguards and shooting him. The program notes this actually happened, but it’s staged like a Tom Cruise action film. Fortunately, the haunting music by Manilow, smart lyrics by Sussman and clean, crisp staging by Carlyle positively compensates for them.
As they did Off-Broadway, the Harmonists are given vibrant life and voice by the amazing Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, and Steven Telsey. Sierra Boggess and Julie Benko provide sturdy support and effectively deliver sterling ballads as spouses of two of the members. Carlyle’s staging and dance direction flow seamlessly, complemented by the flexible set by Beowulf Boritt, the sensitive lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and the context-creating projections and videos by batwin + robin productions. Though it has its flaws, Harmony is a strangely beautiful and sad production.
Monty Python’s Spamalot ****
Opened Nov. 16. for an open run. St. James Theater, 246 W. 44th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. www.seatgeek.com.
Photos: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Opened Nov. 13 for an open run. Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 W. 47th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 35 mins. including intermission. www.telecharge.com
Photos: Julieta Ceravntes