LAS VEGAS — Monty Python fans, many thanks for being here today. I see we have the usual assortment of Brits, adolescent nerds (happily never short of recruits) and middle-aged couch potatoes with an undying silly streak.
Would the Vegas regulars among you kindly identify yourselves? OK, we have some hands in the back and a few up front, but the answer doesn't seem overwhelmingly affirmative.
Truth be told, there's something slightly incongruous here, so it may be surprising to learn that the humor of "Monty Python's Spamalot," the Tony-winning musical that recently celebrated its two-year anniversary on Broadway, seems perfectly at home at the Wynn Las Vegas' Grail Theater.
In a town that can't seem to get enough of over-the-top opulence, the show sticks to its successful formula of flaunting tacky scenery that looks like it might have come from Wal-Mart's medieval aisle. There's also the trademark low-key delivery of gags (many recycled from previous Python outings) combining potty humor and jejune puns with sophisticated literary and historical jests that betray the group's Oxbridge pedigree.
The troupe -- which was formed in 1969 by Graham Chapman (who died in 1989), John Cleese, Terry Gilliam (the lone American), Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin -- brought irreverent vitality to sketch comedy. Their cult classic TV show, "Monty Python's Flying Circus," gave rise to a succession of out-there movie comedies, including "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (on which "Spamalot" is largely based), "Life of Brian" and "The Meaning of Life."
Many of the Python totems (such as flying cows, ram horns and flatulent, Anglophobic Frenchmen) will no doubt be met with quizzical stares at the Wynn. But the prevailing spirit of lunatic mockery could hardly descend on a more willing crowd. Gamblers, like Holy Grailers, just want to have giddy fun.
The brainchild of Idle, who wrote the book and lyrics and collaborated with John Du Prez on the music, "Spamalot" entices you to laugh even when you're not getting all the references. The mix of casually dispatched sophistication with bawdy banter and freewheeling parody means there's a little something for everyone. No one need feel excluded by the insider routines. And since the show spends a good deal of time sending up the musical genre it aspires to triumphantly join, there's plenty for theater types to enjoy. Hey, there's even an up-to-the-minute Britney Spears joke thrown in for kicks.
Admittedly, the production, a 90-minute reduction of Mike Nichols' original staging, seems less spectacular by comparison. This "Spamalot" is not just shorter, it seems smaller, as though the blockbuster had been put on a diet. You can almost read the baffled expressions of audience members who had arrived with grandiose expectations: "Wait, this is the musical that was the toast of Broadway?"
"Spamalot" caught fire in New York for many reasons. It appealed to Python lovers. It was blessed with Nichols' imprimatur. It was clever enough. And it didn't have a lot of competition.
It also boasted the star power of Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce and the voluptuously talented Sara Ramirez, whose combined energetic zeal went a long way toward making the stretched-out shtick seem more theatrically substantial.
The voltage has come down a few notches in Vegas. Yet on a strip jam-packed with spectacles desperate to top one another, the modesty is actually quite endearing. Sure, it would be better if the production flickered less and was at full-strength more often. But John O'Hurley (known to many as J. Peterman on "Seinfeld" and, more recently, a champ on "Dancing With the Stars") is understatedly terrific as King Arthur, the ruler of the Britons who's trying to unify England, locate the Holy Grail with his bumbling knights, take this unlikely musical to Broadway and persuade everyone that those coconut shells his sidekick is clapping are simply the sound of the phantom horse he's riding on.
The supporting cast isn't all it should be, but neither is it a serious handicap. The big fish-slapping Finland number, in which the ensemble has to be reminded that the musical is set in England, seems surprisingly lusterless. But things quickly pick up with "He Is Not Dead Yet," the song in which a presumed plague victim tries to dance off the wagon of corpses he's being forcibly loaded on.
As the Lady of the Lake, Nikki Crawford and her show-stopping cleavage prove to be a formidable duo -- one sings soulfully, the other stands ready to torpedo you into submission. In "The Song That Goes Like This," her duet with Sir Galahad (a game Edward Staudenmayer), she has great fun burlesquing the sappiness of Andrew Lloyd Webber. And she nails the power ballad "Find Your Grail" with all its shameless vocal flourishes. If Crawford's comedic presence could stand a bit of heightening (particularly in the later scenes, where she loses steam), she's still one of the production's merriest assets.
For the most part, the actors try not to oversell their already oversold parts. This works well with the notable exception of Harry Bouvy's lightweight delivery of "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," the jocular ditty that stresses the necessity of having plenty of Jews in your cast if you want to have a major theatrical hit.
"Spamalot" deserves to be a minor hit in Vegas. Don't expect more than an ephemeral tickler, but you'll have no reason to rue your bad luck afterward.