Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 21, 2012

TC West stages “Monty Python’s Spamalot”


TRAVERSE CITY — The problem: How to raise money for a spring trip to Europe for back-to-back international choral competitions.

The solution: Put on one of the country's most outrageous and demanding musical comedies just three weeks into the school year.

"We went right from auditions to rehearsals," said Russ Larimer, music director for the Traverse City West Senior High Choral-Aires production of the smash Broadway hit "Monty Python's Spamalot." "We had the parts cast before the last school year ended and had 25 hours of rehearsal over the summer. So we hit the ground running. We basically started this school year in final rehearsals."

The irreverent musical opens Saturday, Sept. 22 at the high school auditorium and runs Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 7. It features 20 actors from the elite choir, plus 11 student dancers.

"They really are rising to the occasion," said director and choreographer Erin Peck, who also leads the school's annual spring musical. "They continually surprise and amaze me with their maturity level and acting choices."

The high school was the first in Michigan and one of the first in the country to get the license to produce the show, which won three Tony Awards including Best Musical, said producer Jan McCall. The school performed a similar feat in 2011 when it staged Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera." That show sold out a record 16 times, McCall said.

"Spamalot" was "lovingly ripped off" from the 1975 film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" by Monty Python team member Eric Idle and music collaborator John Du Prez. In typical Monty Python fashion, it manages to parody both Broadway theater and the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and their quest to find the Holy Grail.

"Russ is a Monty Python addict," said Peck, who worked with the music director to "bend" some of the dialogue and blocking to bring the "PG-13" show closer to a "PG" rating. "He's been waiting to do this show for a long time."

West's production stars senior Joseph Kiessling as Arthur, who gathers with his knights at a Las Vegas-style Camelot, complete with showgirls, oversized playing cards and the Lady of the Lake headlining the Castle in diva regalia.

"What's great about this show is that we had to learn a new kind of humor: British humor," said Kiessling, who prepared for his role by watching the Monty Python movie and scenes from the musical on YouTube. "We're not so much taking creative licenses as giving homage to Monty Python."

Besides mastering the timing and delivery of lines and, in some cases, learning dialect, other cast challenges included learning to tap dance, he said.

Senior Glynnis Pierce balanced two advanced placement classes with rehearsals as the Lady of the Lake, her first, alternating, leading role.

"I like it cause I get to create a character so unlike anything I've ever been in," said Pierce, whose over-the-top costumes include a replica of the wedding gown worn by the character Christina in "The Phantom of the Opera." "She's the pinnacle of what everyone thinks a musical theater star is."

McCall said the show is produced with the help of six tech crew and 60 adult volunteers including "lead makeup mom" Laura Mather.

"Each character gets a face," said Mather, whose son, David, is her fourth child to perform in West musicals over the past 10 years. "It helps them get into their character role. It gives them more confidence."

Show times are 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22, 29 and Oct. 6, and 2 p.m. Sept. 23, 30 and Oct. 7.

Tickets start at $20 at the West Senior High box office, 933-7509. Proceeds will help fund the Choral-Aires' spring break trip to Prague and Budapest to compete in international choral competitions.

"It's probably going to (cost) in the $3,000 range for each kid," Larimer said. "We're hoping with 'Spamalot' to knock off $1,000 (each) to make it achievable."