For community theatre, Seaway Valley Theatre Company typically has an ambitious schedule of five productions per year. Spamalot, this year’s big musical — “A new musical *lovingly* ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail” finished its five performances in two weeks run last Saturday night at Aultsville Theatre in Cornwall, Ontario.
Over the years, since its split from Glen Productions, SVTC has developed an astonishingly talented core of performers, many of whom have backgrounds with considerable theatrical training and experience. The dedication of these performers and production staff has given the community many remarkable productions including 2013’s stunning production of Chicago (which I saw) and 2014’s Les Miserables (which I did not attend because I could not put myself through Hugo’s downer story again.)
2015’s Spamalot was a refreshing choice, with its roots firmly planted in the tradition of outrageous modern British comedy. There was something in this show to offend just about everyone who wanted to be put upon, from gay marriage to politics to Jews in show business.
It also provided the template for some remarkable individual performances.
One of the grand traditions of comedy is the interplay between the zany character(s) and the sane one: think of Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello (Who’s on First?), Burns and Allen, or more recently, Bob Newhart who typically plays the only sane character in his universe. In Spamalot, that character is sweet, sane King Arthur, played by Monty Python’s Graham Chapman in the film, and here by professional voice-over artist, Cornwall’s Jamie Carr. The whole point here is nuanced subtlety, and Carr nailed it. It would be so easy to play King Arthur over the top for shrill laughs. But Carr, whose zany side could easily have spilled over, craftily held back and let the wit of the script carry the audience along. Carr surprised us (and possibly himself) by singing the role superbly — but should that surprise anyone, considering his roots?
Just when I think I have an idea of what Lacie Petrynka is capable of doing on stage, she upsets my applecart with a nuclear explosion. Petrynka’s astounding vocal pyrotechnics were no surprise; but her impeccable comic timing, dynamic stage presence, and switching rapidly from Barbra Streisand to Liza Minnelli to Amy Adams to Ethel Merman and, well, herself — okay, I admit I am searching for superlatives: brava!
I am certain that when Director Leslie Ellam found Jamie Carr standing before her at auditions, she must have felt like the Spaniards viewing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Perhaps young newcomer Thomas Mooney struck her in much the same way. Like Carr, and many of the principals in this production, Mooney is the full thing: perfect comic timing, the ability to react without going over the top, the ability to listen to the lines as if for the first time, and the ability to play coconut halves in perfect rhythm — okay, they didn’t all play coconuts. Carr and Mooney worked together like peaches and cream: Carr projected the sweet calm humour of a King who is totally commanding a roller coaster flying off the tracks; Mooney was his perfect foil, part helpless Merlin and part mute political advisor. The chemistry was delicious.
Paul Aubin in the role of the cowardly Robin (there is an allusion there somewhere) really hit his pace during the cunningly outrageous “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”, a song in stunning contrast to his poignant “Cellophane Man” in Chicago, two years ago on the same stage.
It is difficult not to watch Ray Nevill when he is on stage: he is always animated, and his face is a choric character all by itself. Nevill projects a character whom, we suspect, is on a wild ride on a very high wire in a tempest partially of his own making.
Michael DeWolfe, whether he is playing a lead character or a supporting character is always fully there, with a hint of danger and a comic delight.
Cameron MacPhee‘s languid, lush portrayal of the desperate “princess” Fred, longing for his prince to rescue him was a comic masterpiece.
Allison Main (also one of the show’s producers) was a hoot as a mustachioed knight; the Laker Girls to a woman were all gorgeous and fun to watch; the ensemble and solo singing all through the show was dynamic and appealing; crowds of people swirled around in beautiful synchronisation and in support of the intentions of each scene.
I have seen Leslie Ellam at work as a director previously, and I know that, although she has a carefully thought out approach for what she wants to happen, she is very sensitive to a performer’s needs; and it shows in the way that this show compiled into a very funny mass, just the way it had to. Not only did the show come together as a lovely comic piece in just the way that Eric Idle and company intended, but it also allowed for the individual strengths of the performers to come through.
There were a few things that needed some work. The orchestra frequently was problematic. Like music itself, a musical needs pace. The pace of the show often dragged at orchestra cues or set changes or entrances, culminating in a show that ran about 20 minutes too long. The show’s beginning on Friday night was bedeviled by a vaguely unsettling overture, spotlight miscues, very loud microphone pops in Arthur’s first scene. Those microphones taped to faces are distracting. I really wonder if this cast of powerful voices needed anything more than some discrete stage miking. Another concern is that through all the months of rehearsal leading up to the show, they were not wearing these microphones. That really flies in the face of good rehearsal practice. Nothing like throwing in a major change for opening night to rev up the anxiety levels.
SVTC is a popular Cornwall institution, just as Glen Productions was in its time, and Cornwall Operatic Society before that; now, more than ever, the talent is available to produce very high quality musicals, but if the production quality does not improve, the overall product could very well falter as audiences fall away. I suggest that the company improve its technical capabilities by seeking professional coaching. It worked for the theatre community in the 70s, and could certainly help now.