The Full Monty
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
June 19, 2009
It is inevitable that comparisons be drawn between adapted works and their source material, and such musings do not fare well for The Full Monty. With a book by Terrence McNally, the 2001 Broadway adaptation of the hit Brit film (released in 1997) transferred the action from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, New York, anachronistically retaining use of the quaint British idiom "the full monty" (meaning: bare-assed nekkid), and jettisoned the movie's funky, wily score (including hits from Tom Jones, Hot Chocolate, and Sly and the Family Stone) in favor of a collection of relatively forgettable musical numbers by David Yazbek. Much of the innocence and charm of the film was lost in favor of bawdy and snark. To many audiences and critics, the Broadway outing was an ill-conceived dud.
How delightful, then, that the current production by Paper Mill Playhouse, directed by Mark S. Hoebee with choreography by Denis Jones, has a fun, playful cast with great comedic timing and—pardon the saying—great big balls. Though overlong at almost three hours and hampered by McNally's meandering book, The Full Monty is an enjoyable romp.
A group of laid-off steelworkers find themselves on hard times. Jerry's ex-wife has threatened to obtain sole custody of their son should Jerry come up short once more with his child support payments, and Dave—a hulking teddy bear of a man—feels feminized and emasculated; Dave also wrestles with his weight and the fear that his beloved wife may no longer find him sexually appealing. After a chance encounter with a male stripper, the guys hit upon a scheme: They'll form a six-man nudie review, pocket a few bucks, and reclaim some sense of self and self-worth.
As Jerry and Dave, Wayne Wilcox and Joe Coots anchor the show with wit and charm. Wilcox is satisfyingly edgy with a laissez-faire puckish quality (at the performance I attended, Wilcox received the loudest and longest applause of the evening in response to an ad-lib following a clearly botched line), while Coots imbues Dave with warmth and good-natured appeal. As Harold, the guys' former boss and future co-stripper, Michael Rupert is dignified and refined, and Jason Babinsky is brilliant as the perfectly chiseled, horridly awkward, impressively hung Ethan. With a lovely ballad in the second act, Allen E. Read is boyish and sweet as Malcolm; easily, his is the finest voice in the ensemble. Rounding out the sextet, Milton Craig Nealy as Noah "Horse" Simmons steals the first act with "Big Black Man," a hilarious twist on the perceived endowment of African American men.
The Full Monty is populated by a cadre of quirky supporting characters, and many come close to walking away with the evening. Michele Ragusa is hilarious as Vicki, Harold's brassy pip of a wife, and Luke Marcus Rosen is a natural as Jerry's young son (the role is played on alternating nights by another actor, Alex Maizus). It is deserving of note that at the performance I attended Holly Davis stepped into the role of Pam, Jerry's winsome ex-wife, and played the tricky part with delicacy and keen sensitivity. The roles usually played by Davis, by extension, were played aptly by Catherine Lena Stephani; may the Karmic Theatre Gods shine on these two able understudies.
Yet it is the wonderful Elaine Stritch who all but packs up the show and carries it away. As Jeanette, the guys' rehearsal pianist (a role that has no parallel in the 1997 film), Stritch is delightfully saucy, salty, and—having seen it all—staid; Stritch is a perfect fit for the ol' board-stomper, who regales the men with backstage tales of Fisher, Frankie, and a dozen other icons of bygone days. Perhaps by way of McNally's poor narrative construction or perhaps due to the sheer magnitude of Stritch's stage presence, the show doesn't really pop until Jeanette shows up at the 30-minute mark, but at that point a somber veil is lifted and the real fun begins.
And what fun! The guys' first act show-stopper, "Michael Jordan's Ball," finds our left-footed friends divining their inner Gypsy Rose Lee by channeling the moves of the former Bulls superstar; the sequence is flashy and unexpectedly sexy, and features an inventive recreation of Jordan's classic dunk. When our heroes finally drop their shorts and inhibitions in "Let It Go," it's hard (ahem) not to cheer and hoot: They are audacious, they are having a blast, and through their stripping salvation we cathartically hope for our own.
Inherent text and pacing problems aside, this production is not without flaws. Two of the musical numbers—"It's a Woman's World" and "Big-Ass Rock"—seem out-of-tempo with the live orchestra. Opening the show as Dave's wife (and the M.C. of a naughty male review), Jenn Colella seems self-congratulatory and a tad seedy; it's hard to root for her after such a pushy introduction. And, most troubling, the sets based upon John Arnone's original Broadway design are overbearing and disturbingly cumbersome; at the production I attended, two massive units collided repeatedly, at one point becoming stuck on stage and necessitating an unexpected drop of the curtain and a five-minute hold (this kafuffle, however, resulted in a superb bit of subtle improvised business by Babinsky, perhaps unseen by most of the audience yet greatly appreciated by this reviewer).
Amidst the jokes and flashes of skin, this production of The Full Monty also carries a resonance unforeseen by the 2001 Broadway staging. This tale of desperate union men, out of work and out of options, lands differently in the midst of the collapse of America's automotive industry and Wall Street's fiscal apocalypse. In talking with patrons post-show, several mentioned they, too, were considering unthinkable measures as severances ran dry and bills piled up. To a person, they had seen themselves in Dave, Jerry, and the hardscrabble steelworkers of Buffalo, baring it all just to bear it at all. The Paper Mill Playhouse's The Full Monty makes for a fine evening of theatre, more purposeful now than ever.