Director Ashley Wells is pretty proud of the Monty Python’s Spamalot cast, and she has every reason to be. They have pulled together a grand, broad production at a breakneck pace, and they have to — this is summer at Lyric Theatre, and they don’t waste a moment’s time. Between July 8 and Aug. 9, they will perform three major Broadway productions with about 10 days in between. That’s 10 days to pull the productions together.
Thankfully, Wells has an extremely talented professional cast, some of whom are reprising their roles in previous productions of Spamalot. Steve Blanchard (King Arthur); his wife, Meredith Inglesby (Lady of the Lake); and Monte Riegel Wheeler (Sir Lancelot) have played their parts before. This makes Wells’ and the actors’ lives much easier.
“We’re doing a show where most people can quote every single line. You want to make sure you get it right,” Wells said. “Also, it’s Monty Python; there are lots of words in this play.”
She also would like to get something off her chest.
“I’ll be honest; I actually like the musical a little better,” she said. “It’s even funnier [than the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail] and more fun. You want to see those dancing knights in tights, and you only get to see that once or twice in the movie.”
The movie is a rollicking, hilarious take on Arthurian legend as only Monty Python could tell it. Spamalot, meanwhile, is the musical version, complete with the aforementioned dancing knights in tights, the Lady of the Lake, her Laker Girls and more.
It’s an extravagant production, complete with moving sets and flying knights. Wells, a choreographer by training, choreographed and directed several productions with Lyric in the past two seasons, both at Civic Center Music Hall and Lyric’s Plaza District location. The musical remains true to the film’s story line, but there are homages to the Monty Python franchise and parts that are expanded and manipulated for a new, fresh experience.
Wells is thrilled to bring that fun and magic to Lyric this summer, yet her biggest challenge is actually managing the entire show — not just the choreography.
“It’s been difficult relinquishing that control,” she said. “I want to take on the dance numbers as well. It’s actually difficult not having my finger on everything.”
But she learned to let it go and is thrilled so far with the results, especially her cast“I’m pretty proud of them,” she said. “The rehearsal is such a joy. It’s very give-and-take, and we can work together.”
For Wheeler, stepping back into the role of Lancelot was, in some ways, like he never left it. He played the role in the production put on by his home theater, Music Theatre of Wichita (Kansas), before coming to Oklahoma City to play Clayton in Lyric’s production of Tarzan. He was greeted with the offer to reprise Sir Lancelot in Lyric’s upcoming production.
“The difference is that with [Music Theatre of Wichita], I made a lot of new friends,” he said. “And with [Lyric Theatre], I get to do it with a lot of old friends.”
Although it reads like an obvious joke, Wheeler feels that he fell into the role he was made to play. (Monte was made to do Monty, if you will.) He remembers growing up and watching Monty Python on PBS with his father, even finding it groundbreaking and hilarious as a child.
“For me, British humor just rings in my bones,” he said. “The very first time I saw it on television, I just got it.”
Most struggling artists are familiar with the virtues of the service industry. Not by choice, necessarily, but through years of dedication and paying the rent with various jobs. It’s where the actor/waiter cliché comes from.
Wheeler’s take on it, however, is the key to his motivation.
“I ultimately think that at the core of a creative life is service,” he said. “We’re serving a play, an audience. That’s the core.”
He also feels that time spent in the service industry connects you to that truth. It’s something he’s thankful for. Don’t misunderstand; he has a career in the arts in the Midwest. It’s a rare and enviable position, and he is not taking it for granted, especially playing a role that he has fallen into — and fallen in love with.
“I think one of the things that makes this show — and Monty Python — so special is that it’s clever and funny,” he said. “That’s hard, I mean really hard, to do. When this came along, I just fell into it. This is what I was made to serve. It’s been one of those projects that shows you what your purpose is.”
Lady of the Lake
Inglesby’s Lady of the Lake is the role that has been the most expanded from the movie.
“She actually doesn’t exist in the movie,” she said. “She is a made-up role that basically embodies all of the women on Monty Python.”
And Inglesby doesn’t mind a bit. She played the Lady first in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina and, much like Wheeler, fell in love with the role. She was in Oklahoma with her husband while he was here for Tarzan last summer, and the creative team at Lyric asked her about playing the role again. She was delighted.
“[The Lady of the Lake] is a bit of a diva. I’m not comfortable being a diva in real life, so being her onstage is more fun,” she said. “Funny is where I’m much more comfortable.”
Getting to play a sexy, funny woman is hitting the jackpot, according to Inglesby. Madeline Kahn — the queen of the “trifecta” in that she was funny, smart and beautiful — is a role model of hers. Kahn was also a dynamo of theater and cinema who wasn’t afraid to subvert her role as a femme fatale with a pratfall for a laugh.
For Inglesby, this role hits that mark on the spot and is every bit worth the hard work, especially when there is a shortage of those types of roles.
“She’s sexy, bawdy, a little bit diva, and you get to do really great, silly, fun production numbers,” she said.
It’s also a part that requires a lot of preparation. Most of the key roles do, and Inglesby is thankful that the Lady is “an old friend.”
“It’s very challenging, especially vocally challenging,” she said. “She is all over the place. One minute, she’s a diva/opera/coloratora (a type of opera distinguished by leaps and trills). The next minute, she’s doing impressions.”
The payoff is that Inglesby gets to play this role with this cast. She made many friends when she was visiting last year, and both Inglesby and Wheeler said they were waiting for the right play to come along so they could work together again.
“This company at Lyric is just fantastic, and theater in Oklahoma is just fantastic,” Inglesby said. “This quality in this level of theater is just outstanding. I was very impressed last year, and I was so excited to come back.”