Brunswick is an epicenter of knight life this week as “Spamalot” takes the boards as the final offering of Maine State Music Theatre’s 2010 season. This Tony Award-winning show is an incredibly funny spoof of the legends associated with King Arthur.
MSMT Artistic Director Charles Abbott plays one of the key roles. Abbott retires from the company after this run, and an appreciation of his long-running role at MSMT is in order.
Between 2005 and 2009 one of the hottest tickets on Broadway was “Spamalot,” a wildly funny and very tuneful musical comedy based on the film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” When “Spamalot” closed on Broadway, the regional performing rights were eagerly sought by professional theater companies around the U.S.
As one of only five successful bidders, Maine State Music Theatre opened the Maine premiere of “Spamalot” last weekend to a sold-out house. It’s a sensationally good show and I expect it will sell out for the remainder of its run.
With a libretto by Eric Idle and music by John Du Prez and Idle, “Spamalot” was nominated for 14 Tony Awards, winning three, including “Best Musical.”
It’s solidly based on the legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and the search for the Holy Grail, but Idle’s send-up of the oft-told story and his uncanny ability to find hilariously comic twists in familiar characters is an amazing piece of writing.
The arc of the story follows King Arthur (Nat Chandler) from the early years of his reign to his successful recovery of the Grail. The story is introduced by a Historian (Chuck Ragsdale). Accompanying Arthur’s quest are Patsy (Charles Abbott), his long-suffering sidekick, and three very errant knights: cowardly Sir Robin (Jeremy Webb), Sir Lancelot (Adam Pelty) and Sir Galahad (Curt Dale Clarke); the latter pair are delightfully full of themselves and full of laughs for the audience.
Lady of the Lake (Daniella Dalli) is the leading female in the cast. This lovely woman’s several incarnations include a wonderful send-up of Cher. Following Monty Python practice, several of these actors also get to demonstrate their talents in secondary and tertiary roles, such as Prince Herbert, French Taunter, Knight of Ni, Black Knight and Tim the Enchanter.
Several of the songs are very melodious, including “The Song That Goes Like This,” a send-up of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s style of composition. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is perhaps the best-known song, delivered impeccably by Abbott.
This is a vast, sprawling show, and stage director Marc Robbins deftly keeps the cast on track, ably supported by music director Ed Reichert.
Maine State Music Theatre presents “Spamalot” at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick at various times and dates through Aug. 28. Call 725-8769 or visit www.msmt.org.
“Spamalot” not only marks the end of Maine State Music Theatre’s 2010 season, it also closes one of the most remarkable chapters of the company’s 52-year history. Charles “Chuck” Abbott is retiring after 30 years with MSMT, serving the last 20 as its artistic director.
During Abbott’s tenure MSMT reached for and achieved that proverbial “next level” in all respects: improving its artistic offerings, bolstering its finances and truly transforming the company into a keystone of Maine’s cultural architecture.
I enjoyed the privilege of knowing Abbott during the last 17 years of his directorship, and I vividly recall our numerous formal interviews and our many informal encounters in rehearsal halls, cast parties and the streets of Brunswick. He certainly enriched my life by sharing his vast knowledge of musical theater and I believe that “Out & About” readers enjoyed a second-hand benefit as well.
Maine certainly benefited in ways that may not be obvious to casual theatergoers. Under his tenure, MSMT rose to the stature of one of this country’s premier summer venues, and as such it could successfully vie for the first regional performing rights to current and recent Broadway hits such as “Les Miserables,” “Hairspray” and, of course, “Spamalot.”
He is also a fine director himself, helming such classics as “My Fair Lady” twice during his tenure. He wasn’t afraid to tackle the biggest shows, including “Miss Saigon” and “Follies.” The latter is one of the true monuments of American Musical Theater, and Abbott beautifully brought it to Brunswick.
Part of Abbott’s deft touch as director comes from his experience as an actor. Although his short stature limited the roles he could play on stage, there are a number of character roles that fit him perfectly. Among the most memorable were Applegate/Devil in “Damn Yankees,” the Emcee in “Cabaret” and Patsy in “Spamalot.”
Abbott leaves his mark as a producer, too. Companies such as MSMT are typically thought of as producing “summer stock” and that’s certainly the mainstay of their seasons. But Abbott also believes that nurturing new musicals and unknown writers is also part of the company’s mission. It’s financially risky – selling tickets to an unknown show isn’t as easy as marketing the familiar titles – and difficult to accomplish in the short rehearsal period dictated by MSMT’s schedule.
But Abbott insisted, and we got to see several world premieres. “Lucky Guy” is a country-themed musical, “Chamberlain” is based on the life of the Civil War hero who lived in Brunswick and “Hans Christian Andersen,” which is a stage adaptation of the memorable film from the 1950s with the luscious score by Frank Loesser.
Although MSMT draws actors, stage directors and technical directors from all over the country, Abbott also nourishes local talent. Mainers who have been repeatedly hired by Abbott over the years include actors Ed Romanoff, Marie Pressman, Birdie Katz, Glenn Anderson and Marc Raymond Dumont. Other local standouts include music directors Ed Reichert and Brian Cimmet and scenic guru Charles Kading.
I should also mention Abbott’s longtime partner, John-Charles Kelly. An amiable and extremely talented jack-of-all-trades, Kelly sometimes acted in every show of the MSMT season and starred in several, including playing Henry Higgins in the memorable 1995 production of “My Fair Lady” and Buddy in “Follies.”
On opening night of “Spamalot,” Abbott’s accomplishment were officially recognized with a “Sentiment of the Maine Legislature.”
I expect Abbott will return to Brunswick in a few years as a freelance director and perhaps as an actor. Meantime I wish him the best in his post-retirement endeavors. And I cherish the memories.