Trying to discover the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow in Rockville theater

Clare Shaffer has a definite preference for drama.

Since arriving in the DC area three years ago to take an internship at Olney Theatre Center, the now-independent director has staged productions of such shows as “Man of La Mancha.” Soon she will tackle “Sweeney Todd.”

But Shaffer not only offered to direct “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at Rockville Musical Theatre; she also was the person who suggested that the theater present it.

“Spamalot,” a musical comedy parody of the Arthurian legends, won the Tony for Best Musical of the 2004-2005 season and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical; it was nominated for 14 other Tonys. The original production had some heavy hitters: Mike Nichols directed, and Tim Curry and David Hyde Pierce were among the players.

“I’m a huge fan of the movie the show is based on, the 1975 film ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail, ‘” Shaffer said. “If ‘Spamalot’ is done well, you don’t stop laughing for more than a minute. It’s surprising, has a sharp script and dry humor.”

But just because it’s a parody doesn’t mean “Spamalot” offers no challenges. As has often been said by those in the business, comedy is harder than drama.

What surprised Shaffer when she first saw the musical comedy is how much dancing it contains. “It’s the heaviest-choreography show I’ve ever done,” she said. “It feels like it's about 70-percent choreography.”

Even in the relatively short time Shaffer has been in Metro DC she has been impressed with the theatrical talent here. Still, she was concerned that rounding up the number of tap dancers needed for “Spamalot” might be beyond her.

Not so.

“We found a lot of actors who have done tap, and they’re good,” she said. “The dance numbers are funny.”

“Spamalot” offers many technical challenges as well. It has 120 costumes and a four-person prop -- – which Shaffer says “still isn’t enough – and a large number of settings.

 It has an ensemble of 12 and several other parts – each comedic in its unique way.

As King Arthur, Brian LyonsBurke gets top billing, but he considers the show to provide “a lot of lead roles.”

“To me, Arthur is, for the most part, the slightly obvious straight man who provides the glue for all the other amazing comedic characters,” the actor said. “I love the part, mainly because I love to entertain and help people laugh.”

The biggest challenge with this, and any “cult” show, is to emulate the film it’s based on. “That’s the easiest way – but also the worst way,” Shaffer said. “We have to be truthful to the intention of the original work but make it our own.”

She has encouraged the actors to develop their characters themselves. “In a way,” Shaffer added, “the characters can be even more fleshed out in the play than in the movie.”

Lyons-Burke has acted in a number of local companies over the past several years, including Kensington Arts Theatre, Sandy Spring Theatre Group, and Montgomery Playhouse. Some of the roles he has most enjoyed include Roger Debris in “The Producers,” Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” and Captain Hook in “Peter Pan.”

But “Spamalot” remains one of his favorites.

“To be given the opportunity to work with such a talented and dedicated team of people [at Rockville] is something I treasure,” he said. “Today’s world is so serious and seems at times so dark, that a show like this, which gives us the gift of laughter, is just the thing that we all need. It reminds us to take the time to laugh and smile and dance and sing.”

Shaffer would agree, though adding: “This is the lightest thing I’ve ever directed. But it’s like jolly rancher, not cotton candy. I don’t do cotton candy.”

“Monty Python’s Spamalot” runs July 7-23 at Rockville Musical Theatre. The book and lyrics were written by Eric Idle, who also cowrote the music with John Du Prez and Neil Innes.


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