‘Monty Python’s Spamalot’ at Zemfira Stage

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The inner friskiness of the 20-member cast, many making their Zemfira Stage debuts, took over after intermission, to make the opening night of Monty Python’s Spamalot ultimately a lively evening of daft musical comedy. Once jitters were disposed, the large ensemble and lead cast members lived in their moment to give the audience a cheery, cheeky, Spamalot.

Stacy Crickmer (left as Lady of the Lake) and Jim Mitchell (right as King Arthur) and cast of Zemfira Stage's 'Monty Python's Spamalot.' Photo by Zina Bleck.
Stacy Crickmer (left as Lady of the Lake) and Jim Mitchell (right as King Arthur) and the cast of Zemfira Stage’s ‘Monty Python’s Spamalot.’ Photo by Zina Bleck.

Over the past months, if not year, Spamalot has become a “go-to” musical comedy that DC area audiences have embraced in venues big and small. It is an indestructible piece of good-natured theater that has been gobbled up to take people away from lives of information overload and world events.

Spamalot was adapted from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The stage musical has book and lyrics by Eric Idle and a score created by Idle and John Du Prez. It received three 2005 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Touring editions have visited the DC area several times.

So, for those who may not be familiar with Monty Python’s Spamalot, it is a sustained send-up of the King Arthur legend, of all things British and anything stuffy. A quick story line can’t do it justice, but here goes: King Arthur travels the land with his servant Patsy trying to recruit Knights of the Round Table to join him in Camelot and on his quest for the Holy Grail. The quest takes the characters through any number of off-the-wall encounters, each a sketch with links to one another. Arthur and his band even meet up with the Lady of the Lake, the voice of God along with some nihilistic bands of other knights

There is a musical score of about 20 songs. No one is untouched by the lyrics of mockery. There is a number about facing death that has become a widely enjoyed happy standard, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” with whistling, of course. There are also several spot-on musical send-up parodies of belting Broadway songs as well as a sharp, tartlet of a piece entitled “You Won’t Succeed On Broadwaywith lyrics that can only bring huge smiles about what it takes to become a hit Broadway musical.  There is also a duet that includes much nuanced movement and expressions as it makes it mark about the “blindness” of the powerful, “I’m All Alone”.

Under the fast-paced direction of Zina Bleck, the large cast moves swiftly, hitting its marks, which is no easy feat when nearly 20 people of varying skills are on a rather small stage. As for initial opening night jitters, well, it was as if Bleck went into the dressing room during intermission and suggested everyone just lighten up and have a good time. They listened. With strong performances by several lead cast members, the newer members of the Zemfira company listened and went out and just had a good time; so did the audience.

So let’s give some notice to Jim Mitchell as King Arthur. He is a full-voiced baritone, with a range of dialogue delivery and a fitting “put-upon” essence. Mitchell is a Zemfira Stage regular. Next add Stacy Crickmer as the Lady of the Lake. She possesses a clear, strong  belting voice delivered with appropriate “big” moves over-emphasizing all meaning as it is meant to be done.

There is the “not over the top” comic work of Zach Fletcher as Arthur’s loyal, under-appreciated side-kick Patsy as well as a delightfully “over the top” comic Rodrigo Pool who gives off sweet affectation for his several characters including a taunting French-accented tormentor of Arthur.

Finally there are Jason Demaso who found is his inner Princess and Mario Font as an annoying, over-bearing father as well as a not quite dead peasant.

The Greek chorus “Laker Girls” was a gaggle of “who gives a damn” silliness turning any possible misogyny on its head, they became “Riot Grrrls” of many ages. Their “give-it-my all” natures allowed your reviewer to overlook them not always hitting their mark. After all when someone is trying so hard to entertain and you see they want to be pleasing, who cares about all the details. One other character to mention is the unseen “Voice of God.” Truly well-done by Erin DeCaprio who is also the stage manager for the production.

Songs and scenes that caught your reviewer’s eyes and ears for mention included: Crickmer lamenting her lack of appropriate stage time with “Diva’s Lament” (Whatever Happened To My Part?)”, and her work in the number “Find Your Grail.” Mitchell is an overall presence whether in dialogue or singing who shoulders much of the show’s forward progress. Yet he shares the spotlight in a way that brings the company together.

Then there is the ten or so musicians at any one performance who are seated at audience left in an area in front of the stage. Under the visibly vigorous musical direction of Annette Fakoury, the orchestra dove into the music that drives “Spamalot.” The musicians played with varying degrees of proficiency on opening night. It would be expected that the orchestra would be become tighter and tighter performing over the course of the production’s run.

Simple choreography by Crickmer is designed with a large cast and small stage in mind. At first, the ensemble members were a bit stiff or unsure, some more so than others. But tap numbers were done in easily heard in-step unison. The costumes provided a great visual depiction of each character.  The Laker Girls especially went through a number of costume changes in rapid succession. The off-stage changing area had to be quite efficient for it was surely effectively used. The quick changes were made and entrances accomplished.

On technical aspects, the James Lee Community Center Theater’s stage was, at times, cramped one for such a feisty production. But Bleck added dimension by using doorways, exits and aisles to add more scale to the small stage area. The set design includes movable “stone walls” and some objects to give am adequate physical presence to Arthur’s journey. Stacey King’s lighting added to the dimensions of the production. First night sound specific to microphones and amplification left some work to be done. And there were some without microphones who had smaller, less distinct voices. But the run of thirteen performance can provide time to take care of that.

 Jim Mithchel (center) as King Arthur and His Band of Knights. Photo by Zina Bleck.
Jim Mitchell (center) as King Arthur and His Band of Knights. Photo by Zina Bleck.

Overall, Zemfira’s production of Monty Python’s Spamalot is an enjoyable night out. It is not a big scale, glitzy production. What it is, is an earnest, accomplished evening of spirited work from an enthusiastic cast truly wanting you to have some enjoyment. It is a show with value for its price.

And, there is an encore of “Bright Side of Life” to end the evening, and it’s hard to resist not joining in. You can then finish off the evening with some freshly made frozen custard just a few minutes’ drive down the street. Or perhaps some desserts at a just re-opened Falls Church landmark neighborhood restaurant that has moved within a 5-minute drive from the James Lee Community Center in a newly re-built small shopping area.

Running Time: About two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Zemfira Stage’s Monty Python’s Spamalot  plays through August 29, 2014 at the James Lee Community Center Theater-2855 Annandale Road, in Falls Church VA. For tickets, call (703) 615-6626 and leave a reservation, or purchase them at the door.

More information is found on their website.

 Note: Zemfira Stage is a non-Equity professional theatre company dedicated to presenting theatre classics and plays that may become classics someday. It is dedicated to bringing people together to learn and grow.