You understand fully that it will not be a typical show when a horn player grabs a scarred metal flask and asks, “Is this the tequila or the scotch?”
The musicians are as usual dressed in all black, as is required, fitting for the funereal event about to unfold. But it is not entirely somber for the musicians who play in Monty Python’s Spamalot. The brilliant but ill-fated musical is closing, to be replaced early next year by the relentlessly reliable Danny Gans, and I am seated in the belly of the beast for the finale.
“The pit” is aptly named: dark, cramped, dank, musty, cavern-like and not at all glamorous. A total of 12 musicians are packed in tightly, sort of like being ensconced in a can of Spam. The conductor, Wayne Green, toasts the group with a glass of red wine poured by violinist Lisa Viscuglia and says, “Here we go, kids.” The players watch sets of glowing monitors, which show Green in black and white and the stage in murky color.
The music feels mechanical, but is beautiful nonetheless. After the first few numbers, the “Fisch Schlapping Song,” “King Arthur’s Song,” and “He is Not Dead Yet,” Green blows a kiss toward the camera and triumphantly flings the sheet music to the floor, which is already covered with the circular confetti dropped from the rafters after every show.
The musicians sweat, a lot. Behind me on my left is percussionist Mark Pardy, the boy in the bubble, surrounded by thick plastic glass. I feel the continual pounding of his foot pedal on the bass drum, even through the bubble. I turn toward him, and he’s soaked. He catches my eye, grins and throws another blow to the snare. To my right is the great trumpet player Gary Cordell, who picks up the famed “Spamahorn,” a blue-painted instrument bedazzled with rhinestones and fashioned from PVC pipe, one last time. He plays “Call to the Post” too aggressively, the point in the show at which Green pretends to shoot him dead. Cordell plays the Spamahorn in a downward spiral of notes, pretending to meet his demise. Funny, as usual, but on this occasion also a little sad.
The show moves along crisply, and during the scene leading to the wild number “He is Not Dead Yet,” where hooded characters stride across the stage and pound their heads with Bibles, smoke fills the stage. It also fills the orchestra pit in a cloud so thick it brings tears to my eyes and causes me to gag. The pit is the final stop for confetti and smoke, and on several occasions, the head of the knight who tangles unsuccessfully with the killer rabbit has tumbled into Green’s lair. At least once, the giant cow was catapulted onto the violinists, and limbs of the bravely clueless Black Knight have also fallen to the orchestra. Break a leg, yes.
I look around at the musicians’ keepsakes, which will be taken later from the space. A little megaphone. A killer rabbit puppet. Little Christmas stockings. Near the back, a poster of the similarly inspired Avenue Q, another Tony Award-winning musical that proved luckless in Vegas. It’s Lucy T. Slut, showing cleavage behind the message “Warning: Full Puppet Nudity.”
One stirring moment: During the French Castle scene, in which a number of stereotyped French figures take to the stage, we hear Green abruptly announce, “Julie is onstage!” That’s Julie Taber, a cast member who has been fighting cancer and was spotted before the show in the lobby with a bandanna wrapped around her head. She hasn’t performed in months, but makes the finale, high-stepping across the stage as a can-can dancer.
The end is not dramatic, hardly theatrical in any sense. I expect a big group hug and lots of tears but witness neither. There are some moist eyes, to be sure, but these people are pros and will make money playing music on (or under) another stage, soon enough. As the group funnels out I catch up with Green, the lone member of the orchestra required to wear a tux. I congratulate him, and he bends over and seems to be looking for something on the floor of the pit.
“Sheet music,” he says. “I can’t leave without my sheet music.”
To see video of the final Spamalot performance, visit lasvegasweekly.com.