BEVERLY — Back in 2005, long before “The Book of Mormon’’ or “Something Rotten!’’ made it to the New York stage, “Monty Python’s Spamalot’’ slyly hijacked the hoary conventions of the Broadway musical and used them for its own deliciously subversive purposes.
The brainchild of Eric Idle, a member of the brilliant British comedy troupe Monty Python, “Spamalot’’ manages to send up not just the “Camelot’’-burnished legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table but also Britain’s self-importance about its own history, as well as quest narratives in general.
“Spamalot’’ describes itself as “lovingly ripped off’’ from the 1975 cult film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’’ and that’s true enough, but here’s the thing: “Spamalot’’ is actually better and funnier than the movie, boasting a stronger ratio of hits to misses.
Now at North Shore Music Theatre, this inventive stage adaptation remains an object lesson in how to improve a beloved property by adding musical numbers to the mix — provided they’re as inspired as the tunes concocted by Idle (lyrics and music) and John Du Prez (music).
At its best, as a beleaguered King Arthur journeys in search of the Grail with his cadre of clueless knights, “Spamalot’’ achieves a state that approaches comic delirium.
For Monty Python — which included Idle, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin — absurdity was practically an aesthetic principle. With a book by Idle, “Spamalot’’ stays true to the comedic sensibility of the Pythons, which was a singular blend of Cantabrigian smarts, schoolboy silliness, and British music-hall influence. Beneath its giddy, cheerfully deranged surface, “Spamalot’’ consistently taps into the liberating power of farce, reminding us that in some ways we are freest when we surrender to sheer foolishness.
Among the many joys of “Spamalot,’’ which won the 2005 Tony Award for best musical, are the ways it mines gold from deliberately anachronistic, Vegas-style song-and-dance numbers and juicy insider parodies of Broadway types: the overacting, self-indulgent diva; the overlooked, secretly resentful supporting actor; the vain and solipsistic leading man.
Speaking of vanity, solipsism, and general preposterousness, “Spamalot’’ has been updated to include an extended, quite funny spoof of Donald Trump. The foray into Trumpery fits quite smoothly into the musical’s inane spirit and doesn’t break the flow of the action. In addition, there are local touches such as a throwaway reference to Patriots coach Bill Belichick and a cameo by North Shore Music Theatre owner/producer Bill Hanney, as the voice of God. (Don’t quit your day job, Bill.)
I wish more of the production’s cut-loose, anything-goes spirit was discernible in the somewhat stiff performance by Al Bundonis as King Arthur. Even granting that His Majesty is supposed to be something of a can’t-get-no-respect straight man, Bundonis’s portrayal lacks the comic electricity and the edge of mania that Tim Curry brought to the role in the original Broadway production.
Apart from that, there’s little to complain about here. Director-choreographer Billy Sprague Jr. charges up the atmosphere in convulsive dance numbers while skillfully finessing the theater’s in-the-round configuration in hard-to-stage scenes involving the killer rabbit, the taunting French guard, and the clueless Black Knight who refuses to concede defeat even as a sword-wielding King Arthur disassembles him limb by limb.
“Spamalot’’ distributes the goodies democratically across its cast, and they certainly make the most of it, turning in one standout performance after another. Haley Swindal is a seething, sultry riot as the Lady of the Lake, who inspires Arthur and the boys on their quest in Act One with the soaring “Find Your Grail,’’ only to disappear for a protracted stretch of the show. Swindal’s Lady resurfaces in Act Two to complain about that in “The Diva’s Lament’’ (“Whatever happened to my part?’’) with just the right aggrieved fury.
James Beaman excels as craven Sir Robin, who responds to every hint of danger with an episode of, um, intestinal distress, and who spells out allegedly unbreakable rules of success on the Great White Way to King Arthur in the rousing “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway.’’
Also turning in indelible performances are Sean Bell, in multiple roles that include Not Dead Fred and the endearingly wistful Prince Herbert; Brad Bradley as Patsy, Arthur’s under-appreciated servant, dutifully clapping together coconuts to make the sound of a horse’s hoofbeats as he trudges behind his lord and master; J.D. Daw, who plays Sir Dennis Galahad to foppish perfection while also portraying the Black Knight, and Herbert’s brute of a father; and Jonathan Gregg as a Sir Lancelot who bursts out of the closet with memorable exuberance (he also plays the French Taunter, and the Knight of Ni).
Near the top of Act Two, “Spamalot’’ advises us, by way of bouncy song, to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’’ That’s not always been easy during this ominous election year, but it’s a task made a little easier by the existence of this irresistible show.
MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT
Book and lyrics by Eric Idle. Music by Idle and John Du Prez. Directed and choreographed by Billy Sprague Jr. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, through Oct. 9. Tickets: $54-$79, 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.