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PHOTO BY KEN EK Ed Bara (King Arthur), Shani Hadjian (The Lady of the Lake), PHOTO BY KEN EK Ed Bara (King Arthur), Shani Hadjian (The Lady of the Lake), "Monty Python's Spamalot," July 9 - 27, Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre

Behind The Scenes: 'Spamalot' in regional debut at MSMT

Wednesday, July 9, 2014 by PAUL WILLISTEIN pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

The musical, "Monty Python's Spamalot," derives its title from the line "We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot" from the 1975 film, "Monty Python And The Holy Grail," on which the musical is based.

"Monty Python's Spamalot" makes its Lehigh Valley regional theater debut, July 9 - 27, Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT), Dorothy Baker Theatre, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. Curtain is 8 p.m. Wednesdays- Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.

Jim Peck, who directed last summer's "Jesus Christ Superstar" at MSMT, is directing MSMT's "Monty Python's Spamalot." He's gone from the reverent to the irreverent.

"It's the other end of the spectrum," Peck says of "Spamalot" by way of comparison during a recent phone interview.

Pecks says there are two main threads woven through "Spamalot":

"The show is a lot of scenes from the film, many of the classic bits, from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail,' many of them world for word.

"The other element of the show is that it's a pastiche of Broadway shows and styles of the last 40 or 50 years."

Peck mentions "Fiddler On The Roof," "The Phantom Of The Opera" and "Singin' In The Rain" (the 1952 movie and 1985 musical) as Broadway and Hollywood classics "and lots of briefer shout-outs to other styles" that are parodied in "Spamalot."

MSMT "Spamalot" music director is Justin Brehm. A 14-piece orchestra, conducted by Vince Di Mura, performs the "Spamalot" score, with music by John du Prez and Monty Python's Eric Idle, who wrote the book for the musical.

"It's a brassy sound, a mid-'50s Broadway score, that supports all of those genres," says Peck.

As with the film, "Spamalot" sends up the Arthurian legend.

In the musical, Peck notes, "Camelot is a parody of Excalibur Hotel, which is the King Arthur style hotel in Las Vegas."

"It's very funny. It's riotously funny, and quite brilliantly put together. It's beautifully-structured," Peck says of the musical's script.

Peck was asked if "Spamalot" references Gilbert & Sullivan, which has been an MSMT tradition.

"I think it definitely is a part of the tradition of British wit, which seems middle-brow or low-brow, but if you look at it carefully, has a very sophisticated literary lineage," says Peck.

"That tradition goes way back to the late Restoration period and even Shakespeare. Literary, word-based, witticism is a strand of British humor."

Peck was asked if, as a director, it was difficult to juggle all the rapid-fire puns, jokes and parody references in "Spamalot."

"One of the things that I have found is that the material sustains multiple jokes happening at the same time. There's an anarchic spirit, about Monty Python, in general, but 'Spamalot,' in particular.

"Unlike other kinds of comedy where you need to build to one joke, there's an invitation to make as many jokes as you can think up and let the audience have the fun in trying to keep up with it."

MSMT "Spamalot" Scenic Designer Curtis Dretsch and the Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre play key roles in the "Spamalot" fun.

"It works beautifully in there [Baker Theatre]. Curtis [Dretsch] did the set. We're using the fly-loft extensively. Since it's a parody of Broadway shows, being in the Baker Theatre allows us to go full-out because it's a Broadway-style theater."

Concerning the set design, Peck says, "We talked about that it should have the feeling of a very sophisticated medieval pageant put on by a group of really precocious middle-schoolers."

That approach encompasses MSMT "Spamalot" Costume Designer Nicole Wee.

"It should look like mom and dad lovingly made them [the costumes] over the weekend out of whatever could be found in the closet.

"In spite of that DIY [Do It Yourself] feel, the show is very, very beautiful ... dazzling actually," Peck says.

Tickets: muhlenberg.edu/SMT, 484-664-3333