His name is Lancelot! He likes to dance a lot! Journey along into part four of the Interview Series that Goes On and On and On as I sit down with David C. Jennings, playing four major characters in Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia’s production of Spamalot. With his trusty stage partner David James along for the ride— as he plays a handful more of the sensationally hilarious characters in this production— it only seemed fitting to keep them together on this wild ride. In a two-for-one special we get to find out just what keeps the laughs rolling with this dynamic duo of actors.
Remind our readers and those new to the series where on the stages of the Baltimore and Washington metro theatres they may have seen you last.
David James: Most recently? I had a couple parts in Miracle on 34thr Street, and before that was Thènardier in Les Miserables. All of these were at Toby’s. I had a break before I started Les Mis, while In The Heights was running and before that it was Motel the Tailor in Fiddler on the Roof. That’s pretty much a full year of shows for me. Now I’m here, doing this.
David Jennings: Before Spamalot was Leader of the Pack at Totem Pole Playhouse, which isn’t really around here, it’s in Pennsylvania, but only about two hours away from DC. Before that was Dames at Sea, also up at Totem Pole. Summer of 2012 was Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at Signature Theatre, I was in the ensemble, if you saw it, mine was the first butt you saw. The last show I did at Toby’s was White Christmas in 2011, tap dancing away in the ensemble.
What was the interest for you in Spamalot? What was it that made you want to audition for it?
David James: I think my reason pretty much speaks for itself. I love the comedy, so I saw the show and was immediately struck with “oh this would be so much fun to do on stage every night.” It is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re into that British humor and you understand it, it can be quite fun. And it is quite fun to be a part of, so much fun.
David Jennings: I couldn’t miss out. It’s current. I love during current musicals; I’m not much of a classics fan. I mean, I can do them, but I prefer the current stuff. I love comedy. I would rather make somebody laugh than tap dance or sing. If I can make you laugh, that’s what I want. My parents worked in a hospital and for a gas company. My mom, having worked somewhere where everyone was always miserable, she in turn wanted me to work somewhere where I always made people happy. That’s why I ended up here performing. Spamalot is the perfect example of me getting the opportunity to make people happy.
Did either of you come into this with a familiarity or background knowledge of Monty Python and that style of comedy? Were either of you familiar with the show itself before getting involved?
David James: Saw the movies. Saw the show. Saw how they took the movie and did an amazing job with transferring it to the stage. They took all the elements; they’re all there. For anybody who is a Monty Python enthusiast, it’s all there to enjoy, which is great.
David Jennings: I actually watched the movies growing up. I remember watching it and I remember enjoying it. The first time I remember coming across the show was just a recording of the cast, I didn’t get to see it anywhere. It was slightly jarring at first because I realized “Wait a minute, that’s not how the movie goes.” Because the show does go slightly off-track and it goes onto other things, but having done the show, I truly appreciate that it did go in a slightly different direction. You lose a couple characters but in doing that it becomes its own thing, it becomes the musical. Now that I’ve done the show, I truly appreciate the differences. I loved Monty Python from the very first time I saw it, movies and this musical.
Given that you both have experience with Python outside of Spamalot do you think this show translates well for both Python fans and those less familiar or not fans?
David Jennings: Absolutely.
David James: When I’m waiting tables I always ask my people, “Have you seen the show, are you familiar with the movie?” A lot of times they say ‘No.’ When we get to intermission I’ll come out and say to them, “Are you enjoying it so far?” And they’ve all been saying “This is so much fun.” So, yes, it does translate.
David Jennings: I don’t know Monty Python really that well, but I would say that if I walked in not knowing what Monty Python was at all, I would still have a great time. It’s funny on its own.
David James: There is something for everybody.
David Jennings: I’m always a fan of walking in without any preconceived notions. A name on it doesn’t mean anything to me until I see it for myself. Monty Python or not, I think it’s a fantastic show and I think it plays to everyone.
You both play quite a few characters in this show, so what is it like playing so many different characters all in one show?
David James: Starting with the Historian at the top of the show, I play him then I go to the frog, you know during the Laker Girls scene, I’m the hopping mascot— no, no, no, no! I’m sorry; I’ve skipped over Not-Dead-Fred, in the dead cart scene right after the Finland number. Ok, let’s back up and rewind here. From the top once more: Historian, Not-Dead-Fred, Frog, and then the Historian again. Then I get to be the flying nun during Knight of the Round Table in Camelot. Then I’m one of the knights in the Holy Grail when Priscilla (Priscilla Cuellar, the Lady of the Lake) is singing Find Your Grail. And then I’m a French Taunter with David Jennings, in a helmet with fingers a flying.
Wow! That is a lot of characters to play in one show!
David James: Oh that’s just Act I. In Act II I start with the Historian again, and then I get to be one of Brave Sir Robin’s (played by Darren McDonnell) Minstrels. I even have a song there. And then I finally go into Prince Herbert and I play him until the end of the show. It’s exhausting, but I love it. And it’s a lot of costumes. I might actually have more costumes and costume changes than anyone else in the show.
David Jennings: I start off as one of the ‘swallow guards’ and then I’m Lancelot. I’m Lancelot for a while and then I get to be the French Taunter, who closes the first act. For the second act I’m King Ni, or the Ni Knight, whatever you want to call him. The script actually calls him quite a few different things. I have another scene as him, and then I get to come back as Lancelot again, and then I’m Tim the Enchanter, and then I get to close the show as Lancelot.
That is a lot of changing back and forth, especially some of those scenes where you make quick changes. Is that difficult?
David Jennings: It is a lot of changes but the costumes really make the transition easy. I go from Tim the Enchanter to Lancelot and it’s simple because Tim’s costume is just a robe, a hat, a beard, and a mustache. That’s it. The costumes are well designed; it’s easy to get in and out of them. I think the biggest challenge for us there is that everything zips up in the back.
David James: Because these costumes are designed for a proscenium stage.
David Jennings: Right. And we have no dressers. Well that’s not entirely true. We have inherited a single dresser who floats around backstage and helps everyone in and out of these costumes, which we are very grateful for. It’s easier now that we’ve gotten into the swing of things and we all help each other out so that those transitions and changes can happen quickly and smoothly.
What were some of the specific challenges you guys came across with your parts here in the round, knowing that the show and all its characters were written for the proscenium stage?
David Jennings: This is Toby’s. I mean I grew up at Toby’s. I did maybe three shows at Burn Brae and then I was at Toby’s. 13 years of Toby’s for me and I feel like they really know how to handle in the round staging. Mark has an incredible approach to making it work.
David James: I’ve been doing shows at Toby’s for so long I don’t even notice it anymore. We put a show on in that space and it’s a show for us, we’re so used to handling those challenges that it just comes naturally now. I love a proscenium stage, but with staging in the round you get such freedom. I think it really opens up what you can do, especially with the choreography.
Of your multitude of characters, which one was the most challenging? Which one is the most fun?
David Jennings: You go ahead and answer this one first, give me some time to think.
David James: All of mine are fun. I love doing all my parts. It’s a dream come true. I know we talked about this before, back when we were doing Les Mis, I love being a part of an ensemble especially in a show like that because you get to be so many different people. So this is like a dream come true because I get to do all these different characters.
The two that are the most fun for me are probably Herbert and Not-Dead-Fred. I love the scene going into “Not Yet Dead.” It’s written so brilliantly, and like Mark (Director Mark Minnick) said, “It’s a one joke scene, but the delivery has to be very honest and sincere in order for it to work.” And I think I achieve that.
Herbert is very interesting for me because in my career of being on stage at Toby’s I’ve only had one other time where I’ve ever played a gay person. Which for me, with my upbringing— hold on, folks, we’re getting serious now— it was such a taboo both religiously and with my family to be gay that I spent most of my life trying to hide the fact that I am gay. So to be openly gay on stage in front of an audience as a gay character, and hopefully getting the respect of that audience either through laughter or understanding, it was very, very stressful for me. The first time I did it was in The Full Monty, I played Ethan, where it’s not a ‘said’ thing but it’s implied when they’re at the cemetery. So it’s very interesting for me because of how I was raised to play this part in front of an audience every night because I’m always expecting not to get the support. David Jennings’ character even says, “Just think in a 1,000 years this is still going to be controversial.” The show is written so well, and I think that whole scene just plays so very, very well, and I find that we do get the audience’s support. It’s scary but it’s so much fun; I know that’s a really weird combination, but in a sense it’s very exciting and freeing for me as well.
The thing about it is I have to go for it and not hold anything back in fear of them not liking me or whatever. It’s my job as a performer and it’s also part of my life. So it’s interesting. As Darren would say, “suspect.” I thank my lucky stars every day for this opportunity, and even when it’s scary and interesting, it’s what I love doing and it’s all just so much fun for me.
David Jennings: I think I have a very different set of challenges. For me this is all goofiness and it’s fun, but it’s also comedy and it’s calculated. I am not where I am in this performance without Mark Minnick. Honestly, the challenges for me were probably the lines in ‘French Taunter.’ Those lines go all over the place. You’re leading with all this taunting, so you have to remember which taunt comes after what, whose electric, second-hand, cheesy- what? That was challenging.
It’s been nice to use different dialects and accents; I’ve never done that in a show for Toby’s before. It was nice to stretch that and try that out. Memorization was probably the biggest challenge that I really came across. But the most fun for me is The French Taunter. I haven’t perfected it yet, but it’s probably the most fun I have because it’s the most fun the audience has from me personally. The gay number is pretty funny too, but personally what I would call my shining moment is the French Taunter. It’s just so well written, all I have to do is say it.
Talk to us a little bit about the “Lancelot” number and what it’s like getting to actualize that character in that number.
David Jennings: Playing a gay guy is a lot of fun. My only hope is that I never offend anyone. I try to be honest and just let the comedy come through the situation. It’s not my first time playing a gay guy for Toby’s; it’s actually probably my third. Chad in All Shook Up has a gay moment, which actually offended some people but I didn’t write it. It was another Navy joke, but they’re a dime a dozen. And then I was Scott the Choreographer, the guy with the big bulge, in The Producers. It’s a lot of fun and I just hope that everybody enjoys it. There are flamboyant gays and there are non-flamboyant gays and the Lancelot character just happens to be one that turns kind of flamboyant, and it’s a lot of fun to get to put that on.
It’s even more fun because that’s the big dance number for me. Now I do have a big dance background. I started at age seven with tap, jazz, and ballet. It’s taken me a lot of places. I’ve been dancing for 20 years. There aren’t very many times where I really get to just let it out, and I don’t think the audience is expecting Lancelot to do a cabriole. So I get to give them a little glimpse of it. The dance is fun, it’s theatrically styled. I came from a hardcore tap, jazz, and ballet program. I wasn’t the best, and I wasn’t the most disciplined, but it has been a very valuable tool all throughout my career and it’s fun to give people a little glimpse of that in this show.
David James: I, on the other hand like I said before, my mom and dad were not so thrilled about me being in theatre. They are incredibly supportive now, and I thank my lucky stars every day to have them as a part of my life, but growing up there was no dance-learning opportunities. I had no experience dancing whatsoever other than ‘I’m on the job. I learn from show to show.’ When I’m taught something I take it and I put it into my bag of tricks and move forward with it. I’ve been stuffing that bag forever.
Tina DeSimone, in the parking lot of Burn Brae Dinner Theatre, taught me how to tap dance. We were doing Dancing Feet which is 19 big musical numbers from all the big musicals. So I was learning the big tap number from Singing in the Rain, “Fit as a Fiddle,” and all that stuff. But I only got to learn those numbers because she taught me all these tap moves. I just kept learning and adding them to my bag of tricks and that’s how I became a dancer. And that all gets worked into—and I know we’ve talked about this before too—but how extremely pleased and happy and honored I am to have a job that I get to go to every single day that I absolutely love. I don’t take it for granted ever.
Is there a moment in the show that either you’re in or maybe you’re not in that consistently makes you laugh?
David James: I’m not sure about laughter, but I will say my favorite section of the show is the two of us from the wedding to the end of the show. It’s the two of us getting to be fun and free with each other. We have our confines in terms of what we do with the choreography and stuff but it’s within our characters to just have fun with each other. It’s very freeing. And it’s great because I’m dressed as a woman, as a man, and I’m getting married to a man. Maybe that’s freeing to me because that’s who I am innately, but I do have the best time from the time we get married until the end of the show.
David Jennings: I mean I’m the funniest thing in the show. I’m totally kidding. If I actually believe that I would fail.
David James: In the very beginning we were told that the material is funny, not the actors. And this show is such a well-oiled machine, and I don’t want to say it because we’re doing such a good job with it, but anybody could do this show. The difference is we have the direction that goes along with it because Mark is very familiar with this show. It is such a tried and true show, the script is just so amazingly written.
David Jennings: You will get laughter no matter who does it. There is more to be done with it, as we’re showing you, but there is laughter to it. You know, it’s funny because originally I didn’t want the Lancelot track. I wanted Galahad, and I know that’s even funnier because Nick told you in his interview that he didn’t want Galahad at first – he wanted Lancelot. But I didn’t really know the show. I had heard “The Song That Goes like This” and I really liked it. I actually like the Denis dialogue, it’s well written humor. That’s the point in the show where the audience is with us. You’re starting to get the idea when we finish with the death/not dead scene, but by the time we get to Denis’ scene, everything is clicked in, you know the arms and legs are inside the ride until we come to a complete stop.
Funnily enough, Lancelot doesn’t require anything more than acting the lines and delivering the comedy. I mean it is very challenging, and I love challenging. This has been my favorite challenge since All Shook Up but with this role I do very minimal dancing and I don’t have a solo. I don’t really sing anything outside of group numbers. He’s just a lot of fun. They’re all a lot of fun? I don’t know I’m not good with picking out these funny moments; you laugh throughout the whole thing. It’s all funny!
Have either of you ever eaten Spam?
David James: I’ve eaten it before but I can’t say that I’ve eaten it lately. Do I like it…um…maybe? I mean, not really. It’s like a devil’s food spread, which I have eaten before, on bread. It comes in a white little can with wrapping. It reminds me of that.
David Jennings: I’ve had it, but it’s been so long. You forget about it. Well, I forgot about it anyhow. I mean it’s on the shelf, it’s not like it’s gone.
David James: I enjoy liverwurst too though, so it’s like that I guess? Along those same lines.
David Jennings: I remember liking it. I think.
David James: Are you supposed to fry it? I hear you’re supposed to fry it. I’ve never fried it before.
Why see Spamalot at Toby’s?
David James: Because it’s fabulous.
David Jennings: Honestly. It’s just fun.
David James: If you’re up for a good night out, then come on out here!
David Jennings: Don’t look at the name Monty Python and have preconceived notions. It plays to everyone, it’s a lot of fun; it’s what I want you to see. It’s what I would want to see if I were an audience member.
David James: You come across shows in your career where you can say “Oh, this is something really, really special.” Believe it or not, something as funny and slapstick as this; this is one of those shows where I feel that and I will definitely remember it for a very long time. I think it’s a really solid piece of theatre.
David Jennings: I can’t think of anyone who would not enjoy this show. I can’t imagine anyone coming to this show and not having a blast. I can’t imagine anyone having an issue with wanting to see this show. It plays that broadly to everyone.
David James: It reminds me a lot of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. That was a four-person show, and I haven’t had that much fun on stage since that show until right now in Spamalot. It’s just so much fun and it’s fun for everyone; it’s fun for us on stage, it’s fun for the audience watching. You want to come and see this show.
Click here to read the review for Spamalot.