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Friday, February 28, 2020

Theater Review: 'Spamilton' parody musical entertains, but gets lost in its own cleverness

Posted By on Fri, Feb 28, 2020 at 4:38 PM

  • Photo courtesy the Dr. Phillips Center
Do you openly despise Broadway musicals, especially the ones that are popular and profitable, yet still have an obsessive knowledge of their creators and songs? Then you – and perhaps only you – are the target audience for Spamilton: An American Parody. Gerard Alessandrini, the writer behind the long-running Forbidden Broadway series of stage satires, has essentially recycled his familiar formula of musical mockery yet again, adapting memorable melodies and twisting the lyrics to make fun of the shows they’re sourced from. Only this time, Alessandrini’s ironic ire is aimed mostly at Lin-Manuel Miranda and his historical hip-hopera Hamilton.

The first thing you’ll notice about Spamilton is how talented this six-member ensemble is, as the actors inject Broadway-worthy energy into the opening numbers. Standouts in the cast include Datus Puryear, the show’s stand-in Leslie “Aaron Burr” Odom Jr., and Marissa Hecker, who plays all of the female roles with the aid of some hilarious hand-puppets. They may not have a revolving turntable to perform on, but their costumes and choreography are fair approximations of the originals, and music director Catherine Stornetta’s lone piano is a surprisingly satisfying substitute for a full pit orchestra. And musical mavens like myself can’t help but be amused when the show starts mashing up Hamilton with vintage hits, cleverly segueing from “My Shot” into “The Music Man,” and imagining the undiscovered classic, “The Lion King and I.”

Unfortunately, as Spamilton broadens its sights beyond Lin-Manuel’s masterpiece and starts swiping at Broadway in general, it begins to lose focus with tired, toothless take-downs of irrelevant targets like Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, and Barbara Streisand, and wastes precious running time reaming productions that have already closed and been long forgotten by anyone south of 42nd Street. One extended sequence seems to simultaneously dismiss the genius of Stephen Sondheim, while also critiquing Miranda for not being as good as him, which make me wonder if there are any composers Alessandrini actually admires. After over an hour of incessant bitching about British invaders and Disney’s dominance (the same subjects Forbidden Broadway was harping on two decades ago) the show’s rousing “raise a glass to Broadway” finale simply feels disingenuous.

I also became irritated with T.J. Newton’s impersonation of Miranda, which mostly involves squinting his eyes and twisting his mouth sideways; having met Miranda in person, I recognized hardly anything of the real artist in this self-described “obnoxious” interpretation, beyond a passing physical resemblance. That same issue extends to the play’s thin plot, which purports to poke fun at Hamilton’s rise, yet draws virtually nothing factual from the show’s fascinating (and well-documented) developmental history.

Finally, while I’ll freely admit that I laughed out loud more than once, almost all of Spamilton’s humor comes solely from recognition of the “inside baseball” references, rather than anything inherently funny about the characters or situations, making it the musical theater equivalent of Big Bang Theory’s geeky fan-service jokes. And good luck following along if you haven’t already seen Hamilton, memorized its score, and studied up on the careers of Heather Headley and Daveed Digs, especially once the cast’s enunciation starts slipping in the later songs.

Ultimately, Spamilton’s script is itself guilty of exactly what it accuses Hamilton of being: superficial entertainment that’s overly pleased with its own cleverness at the expense of the audience’s comprehension. Perhaps the best thing about Spamilton is that, at just over 70 minutes long with no intermission, it could easily be pared down to an hour and turned into a Fringe Festival production. Outside of off-off-Broadway, that’s probably the best home for this amusing but shallow show, where it could find the cynical choir it wants to preach to.

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