Anyone who remembers the 1970s probably knows at least one Monty Python sketch by heart, whether it’s the dead parrot, the lumberjack song, or the Ministry of Silly Walks.
But even people who have never heard of the English comedy group should enjoy “Spamalot,” the 2005 musical based on the troupe’s 1975 movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
“It has all of the famous moments from the movie,” said Steve Black, director of Marblehead Little Theatre’s upcoming production. “But it’s a great work for fans of the musical theater genre, who may not have the background of the movie. It still works.”
The movie and musical both parody the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which were compiled by Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century and have been treated in countless poems, novels and theatrical productions ever since.
Arthur and his knights are searching for the holy grail, the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper, and in Monty Python’s version, their quest becomes a series of hilarious encounters. They are attacked by a killer rabbit, and they encounter knights who say “ni” and demand to be given a shrubbery in exchange for their lives.
Python’s comedy often centers on characters who pursue an absurd premise to its logical conclusion. For example, in a scene that appears in both the movie and the play, a knight in black armor who is guarding a bridge denies he is hurt and continues to fight, even as King Arthur cuts off each of his limbs with a sword.
For Black, that stubbornness has a lot to do with how comedy works.
“For me, comedy originates from deeply developed characters,” he said. “It’s a commitment to portraying that individual person, what makes them tick, what makes them go.”
Black, who is the theater director at Marblehead High School and vice president of the board of directors for Marblehead Little Theatre, said the exploration of character is one area in which the musical improves on the movie.
“There’s a real person in there somewhere, and their unyielding commitment to be that person — that unyielding commitment to, ‘I know what I’m looking for, and no one’s going to make it otherwise.’ — for these knights, that’s to find this grail and find meaning in life,” he said.
“The ways they go about finding that and the obstacles on their journey — that makes it hilarious.”
King Arthur is to some degree an exception, a sensible man who at first treats the other knights, and the creatures and characters they encounter, as if they were reasonable, too.
“He’s the straight man to all of the fabulous jokes and bits,” said Bobby Kerrigan, who plays the king, a man of honor but with a loony streak that he can’t hide.
In one of Monty Python’s most famous devices, Arthur relies on his servant, Patsy — played by Bobby Imperato — to bang coconuts together to make the sound of horses’ hooves, while he holds an imaginary bridle and pretends to ride. At one point Arthur extends this ruse to an even more ridiculous degree.
“We have four or five tap dancers,” said Kerrigan, who lives in Wenham. “In one funny part, King Arthur tap dances with them, but it’s just Patsy clicking the coconuts, and I just point to my feet.”
One of Marblehead Little Theatre’s creative touches was to stage publicity photos on the grounds of Hammond Castle. They also borrowed swords, shields, an axe and helmets from the castle to decorate the lobby at the Aldrich Performance Center and to help get audiences in the mood for the play.
“The dialogue is clever. It’s witty, and it’s fun,” Black said. “The story combined with the enjoyable music makes it a great musical for an audience member to enjoy.”
IF YOU GO ...
What: Monty Python’s “Spamalot”
Performed by: Marblehead Little Theatre
When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 27 to 29, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, July 5 and 6, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 7, at 2 p.m.
Where: Nelson Aldrich Peforming Arts Center, Marblehead Veterans Middle School, 217 Pleasant St., Marblehead
Tickets & information: $30, $25 and $15 at www.mltlive.com. For information call 781-631-9697.