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The stage version of Spamalot is an inspired infusion of the madcap humour of Monty Python (based around the Quest for the Holy Grail film) mixed with some catchy and funny songs that make a very satisfying comedy-musical Surprisingly, because the songs are so strong, they are worth listening to on their own, divorced from on-stage antics. Here, music lovers are spoiled, as there are two versions of the Spamalot sound track available - one performed by the original US Broadway cast; the other taken from the UK stage show that has been touring the country for the last couple of years.
You can find my review of the Broadway recording elsewhere on Dooyoo, but to cut a long story short (and much though I wish I could fly the flag for the UK) this version is inferior by quite some distance.
What particularly lets this CD down is the level of musicality. Obviously the budget is inevitably a lot lower (the US version is a full-blown, fixed Broadway musical; the UK one a travelling stage production). It's inevitable that this will be reflected in the production values. What's not so inevitable (but immediately obvious) is that the quality of the singing is also a lot lower. In many cases, singers appear to have been chosen on the basis of their TV appearances (Marcus Brigstocke as Arthur, Jodie Prenger as The Lady of the Lake), rather than their ability to sing or their suitability for the role. This inevitably impacts on the "musical" aspect of this comedy-musical.
Marcus Brigstocke was disappointing when I saw him in the show on stage. He lacked any real stage presence and his singing voice was merely passable. The flaws in his voice become even more apparent when the songs are divorced from the on-stage antics and presented on this CD. Brigstocke's voice just doesn't have any power or character; everything is sung at pretty much the same level, leaving it all rather curiously flat and expressionless. He might know how to deliver some of the comedy lines, but he really doesn't know how to deliver a song.
For someone who has made her name in musical talent shows, Jodie Prenger is a massive let-down in the crucial role of The Lady of the Lake. The first time we saw the stage show, The Lady of The Lake was played by Hayley Tamaddon, who was simply brilliant. Prenger isn't even a pale imitation. The role needs someone with a hugely versatile voice, capable of singing in a massive range of styles ranging from soft rock and show tunes through to jazz and scat. Unfortunately, Prenger lacks this versatility. As with Brigstocke, she sings pretty much everything in the same style and at the same volume. Her voice lacks the power and authority needed for the role and she struggles to hit some of the high notes. I also think there is a slightly harsh edge to her voice which is not always pleasant to listen to.
Sadly, the same is true of most of the other members of the cast (save for Lancelot and Todd Carty as Patsy, merrily sending himself up). The singers just don't seem to bring the same sense of fun and joy to proceedings as their US counterparts. Detached from their on-stage antics, the songs too often come across as uninspired, lacking any real sparkle. As a standalone CD, this is just not as much fun to listen to (or sing along to) as the Broadway recording.
In fairness, there are some good reasons for this. For starters, this is a recording taken from live performances of the show, whereas the US version was a special studio version where multiple recordings could be taken to splice together the "perfect" version. On the plus side, this means that the UK Cast version has more atmosphere - you can hear the audience laughing which gives you a better sense of what the stage show is actually like. However, it also means that this is a "warts and all" performance that highlights any errors made by the cast and exposes the relative weakness of their voices.
Where the UK recording scores better highly is that it contains more dialogue than the US version. This means that the links between some songs or sections of the CD are more obvious. It also means that there are a lot more laughs, since some of the show's very funny dialogue (including some excellent ad-libs) is included. Thanks to this, the CD flows better and has a more coherent feel than the US version.
Thankfully, whilst the actual performances might not be the greatest, the songs are as good as ever. Putting aside the curious decision to change some of the lyrics they retain that brilliant combination of genuinely funny lyrics and surprisingly catchy tunes spread over a wide range of musical genres. If you've never heard them before, there are songs that will have you laughing out loud. If you have, you will be smiling in anticipation of what is coming and singing along.
There's one final blow in this US vs. UK battle: my favourite song from the original show has been ruined. Presumably make it more relevant in the UK (and possibly to avoid causing offence) the song "You Won't Succeed on Broadway If You Don't Have Any Jews" has now been changed to "...If You Don't Have Any Stars". The hilarious lyrics of the original have been seriously weakened as the new words just don't provide the same opportunity for fun. The need to find lots of different words that rhyme with "stars" completely alters the rhythm and sense of the original song and robs it of its musicality. Whoever came up with this decision needs to take a long, hard look at themselves - in one fell swoop they have ruined both the tune and the lyrics to the best song in the show.
Much though it pains me to say it, if you like the madcap songs of Spamalot, you're better off going for the US Broadway recording in preference to this. The production values are considerably higher, the singing more polished and musical and it's a lot more fun to listen to.
If I've not convinced you yet, here are two final facts. I've played the US version dozens of times (although in fairness, I have owned it longer) and the UK version just once. Factor in that the US version is around half the price (around £5 new versus £10 for the UK version) and it's a bit of a no-brainer, really.
© Copyright SWSt 2012
Recording of the UK stage show