In an early scene of “Spamalot,” a character sweeps through a plague-ravaged Medieval England town, calling out to those who are still upright: “Bring out your dead!”
It’s a moment that is darker and has even more Monty Python-esque irreverence now than it would have had 18 months ago when the Duluth Playhouse’s production of the cult classic musical was originally set to open.
“We have to lean into those jokes — we have to laugh about it?” said director Justin Peck, his question mark audible.
“Spamalot” gets its much-delayed run Sept. 17-Oct. 3 at the NorShor Theatre with about 50% of the cast that was thwarted the first go-round. The musical was in its polishing period and about to open for preview audiences in March 2020 when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz made his first call for limits on large-scale gatherings in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Instead, members of the cast gathered around and recorded a singalong of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” a nugget that was posted for patrons on the theater company’s Facebook page.
“Spamalot” — with a set that never completely left the mainstage is the season opener for the Playhouse as it returns to full-capacity audiences for full-sized productions, which later this season will include "Annie," "Clue," "Ragtime," "The Diary of Anne Frank," and "Footloose."
Asked earlier this week if “Spamalot” is finally going to happen, Peck responded cautiously.
“I don’t want to jinx the fates, but yes,” he said.
'Funniest musical ever written'
“Spamalot” is a cheeky musical with its roots in the “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” a cheeky movie that pokes at the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table — but with showgirls, a large rabbit, a slew of knights who shout “ni.”
“I think it’s probably one of the funniest musicals ever written,” said Christina Stroup, who said she has been waiting to play Lake of the Lake since she saw the Broadway production of “Spamalot” about 13 years ago.
She is part of the cast that almost opened the show in 2020. When it was shut down, she kept limber in case they were able to open in the near future.
“I’d rehearse in my living room with my dog as the audience,” she said.
In the year-plus that followed, Stroup was part of smaller-scale productions that the Playhouse produced for a home viewing audience, including “From Broadway with Love” for Valentine’s Day and “Songs of the Season” this past December.
The small cast of singers met on the NorShor stage to record the seasonal shows for streaming. Meanwhile, parts of the “Spamalot” set were still at the back of the stage.
“I would just go touch it,” Stroup said.
Same show, new vibes
Phillip Fazio, the Playhouse’s artistic director, has barely known a world where the “Spamalot” set wasn’t part of the NorShor Theatre stage. He started his job in May 2020 and on his second day of work, there was a meeting with scenic designer Jeff Brown.
“We were (on the) NorShor stage staring at the set of ‘Spamalot,’” he recalled. “We weren’t going to be able to do this show for several months. What can be salvaged, saved and stored so we can use the stage for virtual programming without throwing ‘Spamalot’ into the dumpster.”
The legend of what might have been has gone on.
“I’ve been hearing what a joyous experience it was for everyone involved, a magic culmination of good local actors, a great design team, with Justin Peck leading the charge,” he said. “Everyone would talk so fondly about this show.”
The Playhouse held more auditions this past summer to fill the roles of actors who were no longer available — which turned out to be about half the cast. The new-ish crew went into rehearsals in August.
“It was one of those magical chemistry situations,” said Fazio, “where everybody in the room was so thrilled, so united, so on the same page.”
The “Spamalot” revamped cast first met in the theater, which is an uncommon way to begin a new project. They were able to get a look at the castle, the wooden rabbit: “The longest standing set in the history of the Playhouse,” Peck said, adding that there was an interesting mix of emotions.
While the set, the costumes, some of the choreography and all of the story remain the same, the vibe has changed with this new cast and “Spamalot” has become an entirely new thing, according to Peck.
“For the first time, I get a sense of what lives on the page and what lives in the space we create from that,” he said. “It’s the same production team, same leadership team. You’d think roughly we’d get the same thing, but there are moments that feel really different.”
If you go
What: Duluth Playhouse production of Monty Python's "Spamalot"
When: Sept. 17-Oct. 3; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
Tickets: Available at duluthplayhouse.org