CLEARWATER — You don't have to be a Monty Python fan to enjoy Spamalot, but it probably adds to the fun, judging from the audience response to certain bits in the musical Tuesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
When King Arthur cantered onstage to the clip-clop of empty coconut halves banged together by his servant Patsy, the crowd roared at the horse-riding shtick taken from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The Eric Idle-John Du Prez musical is actually an improvement on the movie, which once seemed so clever but whose English schoolboy humor has dated badly. Many of the movie's zany episodes — the taunting Frenchmen, the killer rabbit, even the Finnish folk dancing — remain in the show, but they're blessedly truncated, while a lot of the musical numbers are inspired. Bringing together the disparate comedic talents of Idle and director Mike Nichols was a stroke of genius.
The Song That Goes Like This is a brilliant parody of every overblown showstopper from Rodgers and Hammerstein on. It's belted out by Erik Hayden as the luxuriously coiffed Sir Dennis Galahad and Esther Stilwell as the Lady of the Lake, a diva in green sequins backed by her high-kicking Laker Girls.
Stilwell's exasperated chanteuse has some of the show's juicier turns, most delightfully as a scatting lounge singer in Camelot-gone-Vegas. Gary Beach gives an expert performance as Arthur, providing an amiable anchor for the lunacy all around him.
The score is an artful blend of catchy tunes for the knights (All for One), mock-inspirational choruses (Find Your Grail) and savage musical theater spoofs that rival those of The Producers. Most memorable is You Won't Succeed on Broadway in which Sir Robin (James Beaman) instructs Arthur on the certainty of failure "if you don't have any Jews.''
Tim Hatley's set and costume design range from ridiculous getups for the Knights of Ni to the giant foot of God. The trademark Python animation is deployed in Elaine J. McCarthy's projections. Some of the best staging is the simplest, such as spinning yellow umbrellas in Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, an infectious ditty by Patsy (Brad Bradley) that repeats as a sing-along at the final curtain.
There are times when Spamalot seems too overstuffed with obvious gags, as in the second-act Village People takeoff about gay Lancelot (Patrick Heusinger), but it's always funny.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.