The District Theatre's Monty Python's Spamalot seems like an amateur talent show, particularly due to the limitations of the company's new performance space in Rock Island's former Grape Life venue. (The new locale is so small, it redefines "intimate theatre" in the Quad Cities.) Yet while the limited movement due to the lack of stage space creates an amateurish feel, I'm happy to say that much of the rest of Friday's production emphasized talent. If it was an intentional decision to present the material as a novice attempt to recreate Monty Python's (arguably) best-loved film, Monty Python & the Holy Grail, it was a smart one on director Tristan Tapscott's part. Space doesn't allow for a big production, so Tapscott embraces the limitations of the new stage area, and it works.
Impressively dressed in Arthur-ian and French costumes by designers Deborah Shippy, Cheri Lyman, Lexi Holtzer, and Cathy Marsoun, the actors perform within spitting distance of the back-row (among two rows) of seats. This adds an air of inclusion to the proceedings, as if we're all in on the fun of gathering to recreate favorite Monty Python bits. (For those unfamiliar with Python humor, Eric Idle's book, lyrics, and music - co-composed by John De Prez - include plenty of satiric nods to musical theatre, such as the Andrew Lloyd Webber power-ballad parody "Whatever Happened to My Part?", and a delightfully period-appropriate spoof on Stephen Sondheim's "Another Hundred People.")
Bob Manasco is our King Arthur, who gathers a band of knights, attempts to declare his legitimacy as leader of the land, and sets off to find the Holy Grail. Manasco takes a welcome, sincere approach to the role, acting as a sort of "straight man" to many of the others' "funny man" styles. The latter includes Doug Kutzli as Arthur's constant and coconut-clapping companion Patsy. Kutzli walks a fine line between silliness and avoidance of caricature, with just a touch of the "nudge nudge, wink wink" delivery prevalent in Tapscott's presentation. (Most of the audience probably already knows most of the jokes, so the show's "Hey, remember how funny this bit is?" sensibility seems fitting.)
New to this Holy Grail re-telling, though, is the Lady of the Lake, portrayed as a commanding diva by the highly capable Sara Wegener. In her first entrance, as she rises from behind Tapscott's wall of castle-shaped cutouts, Wegener demands attention with her domineering presence and high sense of self-worth. She then continues to own the stage whenever present, not only through her countenance, but also by beautifully belting out some of the musical's best numbers, including the hilariously self-referential "The Song That Goes Like This" and the play's anthem "Find Your Grail."
The rest of Spamalot's cast takes on multiple roles, with Abbey Donohoe carving out a comedic notch for herself with her frail yet effervescent Not Dead Fred, the person who is, well, not yet dead even though he's being offered to a gatherer of corpses. She also delights with her Minstrel's delivery of "Brave Sir Robin," a song filled with horrendous experiences that frighten Chris Tracy's Sir Robin, whom the actor plays as a constantly giggle-worthy, unabashedly effeminate dandy, but with a sincerity that brought a smile to my face whenever he pranced across the stage or shook the hair out of his face.
Joining Donohoe in portraying characters of the opposite sex, Wendy Czekalski skillfully takes on Sir Dennis Galahad, Prince Herbert's Father, and the Black Knight, while Mike Kelly, as Sir Dennis' mother, deserves laughs simply for his apparent amusement at wearing a dress and speaking in a high-pitched voice. Yet if anyone excels at emulating the original Monty Python crew, it's Lancelot portrayer Matt Holmes. He also delivers a falsetto-ed Knight of Ni and a perfectly accented French Taunter who "farts in [Arthur's] general direction" with a glee that suggests he's a fan of the material and overjoyed to play such iconic characters.
There are some issues with the space beyond its diminutive size that will require time to figure out how best to handle. Tapscott's lighting design barely registers; I could see intended lighting shifts, but the overall illumination levels barely changed. And the live band, aptly led by musical director Randin Letendre (nee Randin Turner) and hidden well off-stage, might as well be pre-recorded given the quality of sound emanating from the speakers. But otherwise, the District Theatre's Spamalot is loads of fun, and left me hoping that, should the organization find a better performance space, Tapscott produces the musical again so the set design, choreography, and staging can better match this production's exceptional talent.
Monty Python's Spamalot runs at the District Theatre (1623 Second Avenue, Rock Island) through August 17, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)235-1654 or visiting DistrictTheatre.com.