Michael Urie keeps the laughter going as he stars in a revival of Broadway 'Spamalot'

NEW YORK — Michael Urie has a very hard job this winter: Not cracking up when he’s not supposed to on Broadway.

The former “Ugly Betty” and current “Shrinking” star is in a revival of the madcap medieval musical “Spamalot” and that means regular silliness from his co-stars.

“At some point, somebody will do something totally stupid and we’ll all crack up laughing,” he said. “I have to bite the inside of my cheek or turn upstage or just really think about my intention.”

You can sympathize with Urie since “Spamalot” is built on shenanigans that includes a group of knights fond of shrubbery, a singing and dancing plague victim, flatulent Frenchmen and killer rabbits.

“The wordplay is so clever and then you’ll get a fart joke or then a rabbit will bite someone’s head off,” said Urie. “I don’t know any other material that is highbrow and lowbrow at the same time or within seconds of each other, but they seem to pull it off.”

He’s joined by a cast that includes theater stars Christopher Fitzgerald, James Monroe Iglehart, Ethan Slater and Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer and “Saturday Night Live” comedian Taran Killam.

Killam and Fitzgerald in particular are liable to make Urie crack up: “The things that I’m ready for, I’m a rock. I can I can keep it together. I’m really good at that. But if somebody throws a curveball, it’s a little tough.”

The stage tale, concocted by “Python” legend Eric Idle and loosely based on the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” concerns King Arthur and his quest to corral some knights who’ll go off with him to find the grail, the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper.

One of the show’s highlights is the rousing final number — “Find Your Grail,” with the lyrics “Keep your eyes on the goal/Then the prize you won’t fail/That’s your grail” — which Urie says is a simple idea but could be a metaphor for anything we seek.

“Of course, the grail could be anything. It could be a literal cup. It could be singing and dancing. It could be falling in love. But the idea that finding your friend could also be a grail to me is really, really, really beautiful,” he said. “I think theater brings people together. It’s sharing space.”

Urie, who can be seen now in “Maestro” opposite Bradley Cooper, plays Sir Robin, a cowardly knight who soils his pants whenever he’s afraid, which is often. Idle played him on film and David Hyde Pierce originated the stage role when the Tony Award-winning musical debuted in 2005.

“The role I play was crafted for David Hyde Pierce, one of my heroes and one of our greats,” said Urie. “I think his way of speaking and singing and dancing really works for me. His training is similar to my training and the kinds of parts that he plays, I think are similar to the kinds of parts that I play.”

He also plays a long-winded monk called Brother Maynard, who wields the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, and a guard who is eager to debate whether swallows can successfully carry a coconut.

“As silly as the show comes off, a really good actor gives it such nuance and gives it so much for the audience to enjoy and so much control. He’s he’s just a very, very skilled actor,” said director Josh Rhodes.

For Urie, the material is familiar turf. He remembers watching the original movie as a middle schooler and quoting parts of it with his friends, realizing that was changing the way he thought of comedy.

“I remember as a middle school kid — like a preteen or a teenager — around the same time figuring out that Monty Python was funny and figuring out that the Beatles were good,” he said.

“There’s something about these like these sort of British staples in entertainment that kind of seeped into my consciousness at the same time. I think there’s something pure about the both.”

The Juilliard-trained Urie broke out in “Ugly Betty” but theater fans knew him for his winning solo turn in Jonathan Tolins’ utterly charming play “Buyer & Cellar,” playing a clerk in Barbra Streisand’s underground mall. His other stage credits include a powerful revival of “Angels in America” to the big Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

“I wasn’t able to really, like, make it big in theater until I was on TV, which is just sort of the nature of like selling tickets,” he said. “But I’m really grateful that I got that break and I was able to get a foot in the door in the theater.”

Early next year, he’ll also star alongside Sutton Foster in an off-Broadway revival of “Once Upon a Mattress,” a musical comedy set in 15th century Europe. “This is my medieval phase,” jokes Urie. “I’m doing medieval musicals, which I think is working out for me.”

But right now, he’s got to be silly. Urie says one of the good things about doing “Spamalot” is that audiences who arrive have come for a good time, knowing what to expect.

“So many times when you do a play, especially in New York, they’re like, ‘What’s this going to be? Go ahead, entertain me, move me.’ But with ‘Spamalot,’ it’s more like, ‘OK, don’t mess it up.’ It’s more like, ‘We’re with you, but you better bring it. You better bring out a rabbit or I’m not going to like it.’”


Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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