The jokes in Rivertown Theatres' latest production aren't laser-guided missiles. They're more like an 800-pound cow launched from a catapult.
"This isn't high art," says Gary Rucker, who's directing the show for Theatre 13. "It's Spamalot."
The musical follows the basic story from the British troupe's classic 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail and incorporates bits that poke fun at Broadway conventions. There are many memorable Holy Grail jokes, but audience members don't need a reference point to appreciate the ridiculousness of sneering French soldiers launching a cow at King Arthur and his knights in the absurdist reimagining of the quest for the Holy Grail.
Written by Monty Python's Eric Idle, Spamalot was a smash hit on Broadway and in London's West End. When the rights recently became available for independent productions, Rucker and Theater 13 co-founder Kelly Fouchi jumped at the chance to produce the show at Rivertown Theatres.
"Kelly is a fan of anything that spoofs Broadway, and I've been a Monty Python fan since I was a kid," Rucker says. "So this show was kind of the perfect storm for both of us."
Rucker and Fouchi cast much of the show by recruiting friends whose enthusiasm for the production matches the over-the-top spirit of the show.
"Growing up as a kid, my favorite theater memories were always in summer, like when you go see a big musical with all your friends," Rucker says. "We figured Spamalot was a perfect show to capture that feeling again. This is how I want to spend my summer, doing this with a bunch of people I really enjoy."
The cast includes Mike Harkins as King Arthur, Mason Wood as Sir Lancelot the Homicidally Brave, Ricky Graham as Sir Robin, the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot and Marc Fouchi as Sir Dennis Galahad the Dashingly Handsome. Rucker also performs in the show, playing Patsy, the king's servant.
Rucker isn't the only Monty Python fan in the cast. Wood shares his devotion to the source material, and when Rucker first sent him the script and asked him to get "off book" — memorize his lines — Wood told him, "I've been off book since I was 15 years old!"
Monty Python and the Holy Grail attracted a devoted following over the years, and fans of the movie will recognize gags like the clip-clop of imaginary horses, the Knights Who Say "Ni!" and the knight who insists that his dismemberment by King Arthur's sword is merely a flesh wound. But the show also plays to devotees of musical theater with winks and nods to Broadway mainstays including The Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story and Guys and Dolls.
Spamalot's self-awareness becomes part of the plot in Act 2, when King Arthur and his knights must put on a Broadway musical as part of their Grail quest. The song-and-dance number, "You Won't Succeed On Broadway," is a big moment for Sir Robin, and it's the kind of exaggerated parody that has earned Graham a following among New Orleans audiences.
"I do love having the big second-act number," Graham says. "Sir Robin has been dying to break out into a big, showbizzy number the whole show and finally gets his chance. It's a joy to do."
While Graham takes advantage of this opportunity to ham it up on stage, his primary approach to the character is more subtle throughout.
"The role is really quite underplayed," Graham says. "The dialogue is so funny that very little is needed to put it over."
Spamalot gives producers the flexibility to incorporate site-specific humor. When the cast addresses the audience directly, the script calls for particular references to their location, whether it's New York City, London or Kenner. Rucker doesn't want to give away any punch lines, but some tweaks have been made with local audiences in mind.
"They want you to make fun of where you are," Rucker says. "Just being in Kenner has allowed us to milk a bunch of laughs out of that."
Graham says he expects some crowd participation along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but he and Rucker stress that a textbook knowledge of Monty Python or Broadway history isn't a requirement for enjoying the show.
"That's kind of the beauty of it," says Rucker. "It's not exclusive. If you don't know [Monty Python and the Holy Grail], it's still a really funny story with really good songs."