Theatre by the Sea’s Spamalot Is Predictably Wonderful

spamIn 1987, Theatre by the Sea was still a Tommy Brent operation and this writer was a teenage intern learning the intricacies of set building, ensemble acting, sound design for musicals and how to pick up a few extra dollars singing in the postshow cabarets. That season featured a nostalgic burlesque review called Sugar Babies, which had been a star vehicle for Mickey Rooney in 1979. TBTS cast a Worcester native named Michael McGrath to drive Sugar Babies and he quickly became a favorite, returning not long after to star in George M!, a musical celebrating a Providence native. Theater by the Sea is a Rhode Island institution that has long supplemented its out-of-town professional casts with local talent, and although the varying management lineups since the Tommy Brent years have toyed with the formula from time to time, Bill Hanney’s slick approach to the summer season still leaves room for cherished hometown heroes such as Tom Gleadow. And, though URI isn’t being used as a farm team as much these days as Boston Conservatory seems to be, there are still enough scattered RI folks on the production and design team to keep Matunuck from resembling PPAC South.

What is notable about the current TBTS offering, Monty Python’s Spamalot, is that the aforementioned Michael McGrath went on to star as Patsy, the coconut-clapping sidekick to King Arthur, in the original Broadway cast of the show. The fact is buried in the program under the bio of the actor playing Patsy in this production (as he apparently understudied McGrath in the original), but could well have served as a tie-in to the triumphs of summers past. Hanney is all about progress, however, and while Buddy Cianci gets much hoopla for his recorded appearance in the show (Cianci himself showed up on opening night to schmooze and then quietly disappeared after his bit was over), nostalgia is a limited commodity in Matunuck. As Tom Gleadow himself quips from onstage in an amusing character break, “Geez, Bill, can’t we open this show first before we advertise next season?” Hanney knows how to produce a musical summer season and, much like an actor whose job is not the show, but the next audition, 2014 is almost a memory and the full court press for next year is already evident.

If it feels as if this review is less about the current production and more about the TBTS legacy, then that is because there is not much to say about Spamalot except that it is predictably wonderful. With enough investment in premade costumes, seasoned Equity performers and directors (with a rich Spamalot history of their own), and a wickedly clever and entertaining script with hummable, funny songs, it would be near impossible to produce a flop. Every performer shines at one point or another, especially Sean Bell and Harry Bouvy who capture writer Eric Idle’s Python nuances perfectly. Bell’s rubberific “I’m not dead yet!” peasant is only topped by his insanely effeminate Prince Herbert. Bouvy’s Prince Robin faithfully recreates Eric Idle’s original from the Holy Grail film, but throws in a dash of Martin Short to make it his own. Haley Swindal is also foreseeably amazing as The Lady of the Lake, a part written for a diva who better be Vegas-ready or the show will fall flat.

So, Hanney and his crew have done all of the correct shopping and given us the Spamalot we deserve. There are enough in-joke deviations from the script to make the subscribers laugh (Mary Poppins references take over the Knights Who Say “Ni” sequence) and, despite the Broadway-invades-Cards Pond Road-onslaught of the entire experience, TBTS manages to be somewhat self-aware and keep things like the awkward preshow announcements quaint and homey. Summerstock audiences want a show, not daring theatrical chances, and Spamalot (much like next year’s Young Frankenstein) fills a closing slot niche that isn’t quite as family friendly as Grease was or as Little Mermaid will be. TBTS can ride this wave for years, giving us jukebox musicals, followed by family fare and ending with irreverence until shows like Book of Mormon and Avenue Q are exhausted. None of which will star more than one or two actors from Rhode Island, but that’s not necessarily Bill Hanney’s job. His mission is to bring Broadway caliber summerstock to us, not the other way around. Pore through your program and you’ll discover that most of the local talent (much like it was years ago) is behind the scenes. Esther Zabinski’s musical direction is tight and Mike Hyde’s sound design is crisp and clear in a venue that can be a feedback-ridden nightmare for a lesser mortal (his wife, Prop Coordinator Maria Day, was also featured in one of those 1987 shows, coincidentally). Comb through the rest of the names in the production staff and you’ll find RI theater mainstays all over the place.

Theater by the Sea is and has always been one of the true gems of this state. Unlike PPAC, this is not a roadhouse for touring productions that can often be ragged around the edges, but an annual gathering of talent from all over, including our state. Let’s hope that Bill Hanney and company continue to recognize what we have in our own backyard and not be afraid to celebrate that legacy.

Spamalot runs through Sept. 7 at Theatre by the Sea, 364 Cards Pond Rd., Matunuck. Tickets are $42-$62. Call (401) 782-8587 or visit theatrebythesea.com.

One response to “Theatre by the Sea’s Spamalot Is Predictably Wonderful”

  1. Terry Shea says:

    Motif would like to point out, for the record, that the scenic design and construction for the production was done at TBTS…

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