All the great bits and scenes from Monty Python's classic 1975 film Monty Python & The Holy Grail are present and accounted for in Spamalot, the hit Broadway musical heading to the Gaillard Center this Sunday. The Not-Quite-Dead guy will be there, as will the politically astute peasant Dennis, arguing with King Arthur that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is not a viable system of government. And Tim The Enchanter and his killer rabbit also show up in Act Two. And much like in the film, the actors playing Arthur's Knights of the Round Table show up in different, additional roles throughout the production.
Take Blake Burgess, for example; as part of the travelling show's cast, he plays a main role as Sir Bedevere, but he's also Sir Lancelot's aide Concorde, Dennis' mother, and, well, the Mayor of Finland.
If that particular part doesn't sound familiar, that's because Spamalot, a 24-song musical largely written by Python's Eric Idle, does make some serious departures from the film.
"The musical is often called 'lovingly ripped off from the movie,'" Burgess says, "and I think that's the best description of it. We have so many of the scenes and bits that people love from the movie almost verbatim, but it is not the movie. It goes in a different direction, there are some new characters, new songs, and there's incredible scene-work that really brings to life the movie and the music."
Those changes include a rather large plot deviation in Act 2 in which the Knights demand that Arthur create a Broadway musical (but not the Andrew Lloyd Webber kind) and a massive finale to replace the film's rather ... let's say abrupt conclusion.
The original Broadway version of Spamalot was directed by the great Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?) and won three Tony Awards, which could be seen as an intimidating reputation for the travelling version to live up to.
"You really feel like there are some big shoes to fill," Burgess says. "But the show is so well-written and timeless that it allows you to be as successful as you can be. It's so tightly knit and precise and well-timed that the show is a monster."
The precision Burgess is referring to is two-fold; one has to have the comic timing down to deliver the fast-paced chaos of a Monty Python production, and one has to learn to move quickly and deliberately backstage.
"I start out as the Mayor of Finland at the top of the show," Burgess says, "then I move into playing Dennis' mother, then into Sir Bedevere, then I play Sir Lancelot's Concorde before going back to Bedevere again. I'm all over the place, and I'm constantly changing clothes backstage. It's a lot. So what we have to do is set a base of movement and make sure we know where we're going and when."
And in order to do that, the cast and the production company have to know their venue, which changes every night.
"With a travelling show, we don't always know how big the theater is going to be, or whether the backstage crossover is behind the stage or below it," Burgess says. "You have to be really vigilant about how far you can go and make it work for the venue where you're performing."
Luckily, Burgess has been a huge Python fan all of his life, so he had a feel for the ins and outs of the group's dialogue and what's required to pull it off.
"I knew The Holy Grail very well before I came to Spamalot," he says. "And that helps in terms of the timing and the sense of humor of Python and knowing what the characters are. They put so many layers of analysis into writing these jokes; it's the reason why the show and the movie are so timeless."
And even as a devoted fan, Burgess says that he learns something new at virtually every performance.
"There are nights that we do the show multiple times, and I find something new every time," he says. "I'll find some deeper layer that was put in there years ago that reveals itself to me. You can know the show and the movie backwards and forwards and you're still going to find new things in it. And I think that that's what the audiences love, too."