The Full Monty
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 30, 2005
When it comes to The Full Monty, it turns out that size totally matters: Small is better.
That's my conclusion after seeing the delightfully intimate—and extremely entertaining—revival of The Full Monty at Gallery Players in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and comparing it with my (mostly not very happy) memories of the Broadway production at the ten-times-as-large Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Everything about this spunky, scrappy mounting exceeds the overblown original—the performances are sharper, the songs are funnier and sweeter, the laughs are happier, and the energy and high spirits are genuine, outsized, and infectious. Director Matt Schicker has, to his great credit, located the joyful life-affirming center of this show, and every moment of his superb staging supports The Full Monty's singular defining idea: that life is hard and short and so may as well be enjoyed and celebrated, every chance we get. This is a show that reminds its audience that we're supposed to go the full monty in everything we do, everyday. And, God bless 'em, its six ballsy leading men do exactly that at the show's climax, to the hootin', howlin' delight of everybody in the room.
Just in case you don't know, The Full Monty is the musical comedy by Terrence McNally (book) and David Yazbek (lyrics & music) about six unemployed steelworkers in Buffalo, New York who decide to put on a one-night-only strip show in order to earn some quick cash and, just possibly, win back some much-needed self-esteem. It's based on the hit movie of the same name.
The primary focus here is on two of the men, Jerry Lukowski and Dave Bukatinsky. Jerry is a 32-year-old screw-up who has big dreams but little follow-through; he's more motivated than usual to make something of himself, however, because he's about to lose joint custody of his 12-year-old son, Nathan, unless he can pay some back child support. Dave, Jerry's best friend, is overweight and stuck in a huge funk because he can't find work. Though their wives (in Jerry's case, ex-wife) urge them to take jobs as security guards or cashiers at the local mall, neither is willing to sacrifice his pride. So when Jerry comes up with the wild idea to do the strip act, it makes a weird kind of sense.
Realizing that they need more than just a duo to make this act work, they hire four additional dancers from among the ranks of Buffalo's large un- or under-employed male population. Harold Nichols, their ex-boss, is brought on for his dancing skill, but he needs the gig just as much as Jerry and Dave do, for he's not only out of a job but hasn't had the guts to tell his wife, who continues to spend in accordance with their former upper-middle-class lifestyle. Jerry and Dave meet Malcolm MacGregor as he is attempting to commit suicide (they pull him out of the carbon monoxide-filled car he's locked himself into): he's a hopelessly shy young man still living at home with a domineering mother; but he's a night security guard at the old factory where they all used to work, providing them with a place to rehearse. Noah "Horse" Simmons, an older black gentleman, is added to the group unabashedly because they think women will like a "Big Black Man" (and Horse suggests that his nickname has something to do with his physical attributes). The sixth dancer is Ethan Girard, another former steelworker; sweet and well-meaning, he's a total klutz—but he's fearless, and when he drops trou and shows the others his stuff, they put him on the squad immediately.
The show alternates between the boys' rehearsals and more personal developments in their lives. We never find out much about Horse, but as The Full Monty progresses we learn about the solid marriages that both Dave and Harold enjoy (and come to appreciate their spouses—Georgie and Vicki, respectively), and we watch as Malcolm and Ethan's friendship blossoms into something deeper. (The most moving moment of the show is at the funeral of Malcolm's mother, where Malcolm and then Ethan sing the affirming hymn "You Walk With Me.") We also watch—and are continually frustrated by—Jerry's seeming inability to grow up.
At the last minute, as the appointed night for the show approaches, Jerry decides that the sextet will go "the full monty" when they strip—i.e., they will take off EVERYTHING, doing the Chippendale types one better. This of course results in a flood of ticket sales, and supplies Jerry and the others with a final test. Will they go through with it? Well, I've already told you the answer—but the suspense and the tension mount with real exhilaration here anyway. The show is never about what we'll get to (pruriently) see, but what the guys are finally willing to let themselves do. The big finale is called "Let It Go" and that's exactly the right title.
Schicker's staging is hugely successful in every department. He's cast the show with actors who look like real guys, as opposed to pretty boys; all six of his leading men are very convincing, as well as quite talented. Mitchell Jarvis gets Jerry's immaturity and likeability exactly right, and he's also a terrific dancer, leading the group neatly through the rousing Act One finish, "Michael Jordan's Ball," in which Jerry explains that the dance routine should be as natural and graceful as a game of basketball. Scott Windham is fine as chubby, insecure Dave, really letting us see the good humored affability that has made him such a good friend to Jerry and good husband to Georgie all these years. Michael Roth is terrific as uptight Harold, and nimble Dann B. Black proves something of a scene-stealer as Horse, especially in his "audition" number, "Big Black Man." As Malcolm and Ethan, Darron Cardosa and Gavino Olvera play with real compassion and commitment; we're happy to see them find each other.
Other roles are just as propitiously cast. The wives—Patti McClure as Vicki, Aimee Trumbore as Pam, and Kim Ramsey as Georgie—are all portrayed with empathy and intelligence. Dennis Michael Keefe (who also plays in the band) is solid as Pam's sturdy new fiance, Teddy, and young Julian Pavlin is perfect as Jerry's loving but pragmatic 12-year-old son. Brandon Straka is terrific as a "real" stripper named Keno—I love what Schicker and Straka have done with this character, ensuring he's not the flighty, arch stereotype that he was in the Broadway production. And then there's Tricia Norris, whose way with a wry one-liner wins her laugh after laugh as Jeanette Burmeister, the game old virtuosa who improbably shows up to be the boys' accompanist and main booster.
Sets (Timothy J. Amrhein), costumes (Melissa Beverage), lighting (Michael P. Jones), and live music (the 6-piece band is led by Ken Legum) are necessarily modest but entirely appropriate: one of the things that works best here is putting the boys' strip show into a theatre that actually looks like a Buffalo nightspot instead of a Vegas showplace. When the tacky spangly curtain falls into place onto stage and the ensemble fans out into the intimate auditorium to cheer the boys on, we feel like we're right in the middle of something real and special, which is just as it should be.
At $15 a pop, The Full Monty is the best theatre bargain in town right now; it's also one of the no-holds-barred best times to be found among any musical, at any price, on Broadway or way, way off. Hop on the F or R train and get over to Gallery Players. You owe yourself an evening this fun.