There’s a new production of The Full Monty at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ. Or is that the old production? It may not be an exact replication, but if memory serves, Mark Hoebee’s staging is, in look and feel, an (appropriately) unabashed paraphrase of Jack O’Brien’s original, and as such it’s perfectly fine; I daresay anyone who never saw the Broadway mounting is pretty much getting a de facto second chance here. The cast is completely new of course, but nonetheless first rate, including many Broadway veterans, such as Wayne Wilcox, Jenn Colella, Michael Rupert and Michele Ragusa among others, plus Milton Craig Nealy recreating the role he played in the National Tour. All of them at the tippy top of their game. And, oh yes, there’s Elaine Stritch in the role of the street-wizened (pun intended) rehearsal pianist doing…oh, whatever the hell she does. It’s not really the role, it’s Stritch riffing on the role (if you can dig the difference), but it amazingly does no harm and the audience loves it anyway.
feelings about the show itself haven’t changed a whit since the debut
production (save for the fact that I no longer think of its
composer-lyricist David Yazbek
as merely a promising voice, but rather as a major player of top
quality), so I’m just going to cheat—it is Summer, after all—and
duplicate the text of my Broadway opening review below, for those
interested in a detailed analysis. For those who couldn’t give a damn
simply want to know if this Full Monty is worth their travel-time and effort,
the quick-and-dirty answer is
yes, absolutely, bearing in mind that the material itself is hugely
entertaining yet far from perfect. But you’d be hard pressed to
more fairly and professionally represented.
There are actually two reviews to be written about the new musical based on the film “The Full Monty”: The first is the consumer advocate statement—the second is an actual examination of the show’s elements.
The consumer advocacy thing first: It’s a real audience-pleaser, and earns the right to be. It tells a fun story, you care about the characters, the score bounces along in a hip, painless fashion and the show doesn’t aspire to much except giving a good time, which it delivers. In that respect, it’s the kind of thing many would refer to as a “real, old-fashioned musical.” One could argue the point vigorously, I guess (I would maintain, in truth, that there is no such thing as a ROFM, merely classic or surviving musicals that variously honor traditional principles), but why split hairs? It’s an object lesson in how little it takes to get an audience on your side if you have the talent to “simply” engage their interest in what happens next and deliver a well-crafted score in which the songs do what theatre songs are supposed to do: advance character and/or plot in key moments in well-formed, well “argued” music and lyrics that colorfully evoke milieu and the appropriate diction. That all sounds like Musical Theatre 101, of course, but it pays to remember how few musicals of recent years have scored high marks in that particular class. Say what you will about “The Full Monty”, it scopes its target and when it fires, aims true. Go and enjoy.
That’s review number one. Here’s number two:
Though “The Full Monty” is astonishingly effective, it is also astonishingly less than A-plus material. I don’t remotely mean to say it’s material without style or wit or flair, nor that its creative team aren’t men of great talent all…only that “The Full Monty” rarely rises above a certain level of expert competency. But again, that’s why it’s an object lesson in the power of a basic audience-friendly story and craft over the bells and whistles of spectacle and uninformed—meaning random or lazy—experimentation.
Let’s hit the story first. And before I go into synopsis, forgive my ranting about how unconscionable it is that the screenwriter of the original film—who didn’t do anything much, just devise the story being adapted and create the characters being exploited, that’s all—goes uncredited in the program. But I’ll credit him here: his name is Simon Beaufoy, and I hope at least he gets continuing financial participation in the musical’s success. (And for those into such things, an especially fine novelization of the script, by Wendy Holden, is available for $12.00 in an American trade paperback edition from HarperPerennial.) Mr. Beaufoy is British, and set his tale in an English town where a steel plant has closed down, leaving its men out of work and getting more desperate.
In his libretto for the musical, Terrence McNally has wisely (though, musicals being what they are, it may not have been his decision alone) Americanized the setting—one of the few such transpositions that actually improves things for musical purposes, because the starting-point crisis is so universal and immediate that it doesn’t require a British infusion for verisimilitude—the change actually hastens audience identification and sympathy.
So now the tale takes place in Buffalo, where unemployed steelworker Jerry Lukowski (Patrick Wilson) is trying his best to survive on his union-provided unemployment insurance, is unwilling to subject himself to the humiliation of minimum wage work, and faces the very real prospect of losing contact with his teenage son Nathan (Thomas Michael Fiss or Nicholas Cutro) for non-payment of child-support.
Jerry is not alone in feeling emasculated: his best friend, a self-conscious fat man named Dave Bukatinsky (John Ellison Conlee) hasn’t been to bed with his wife Georgie (Annie Golden) in months. And on one night when she and Jerry’s ex, Pam (Lisa Datz) go to a Chippendale’s-style male-stripper joint, Jerry and Dave, on a macho quest to discover “what have they [the strippers] got that we haven’t got?” sneak into the club on ladies’ night and overhear a few demoralizing things.
But demoralized or no, it gives Jerry an idea. All these women are screaming over anonymous, perfectly formed hunks, most of whom (the tale implies) are gay anyway. And those guys just rake in the dough. Jerry starts to think that the local ladies would pay lots to see real men— their own real men—do the same thing.
And he embarks upon a quest to put together a group that will include five other somewhat like-minded individuals who want to get in on the action—and get out of financial trouble at the same time…
What Mr. McNally does extremely well is define a wide range of characters with clean, economical brush-strokes that still evoke a certain working-class depth; and keep the dialogue entertaining and funny. He also juggles several plot threads with extreme dexterity while keeping the overall goal always in sight.
Where Mr. McNally falters is in the second act, and the signs of Act Two trouble are evident early:
The first act ends as the six fellows begin their first rehearsal—with one of their ranks, the downsized executive who downsized them (Marcus Neville) trying, with little success, to get them to master basic unison dance moves. The attempt is a disaster—until Jerry starts talking in basketball terminology and all the guys, understanding that shorthand, suddenly execute beautifully coordinated moves. This segues into a rousing dance number in which they all imagine themselves to be Michael Jordan, and concludes with a real ray of hope.
The second act begins a week later. The guys are terribly depressed; rehearsals are going miserably.
Now, “The Full Monty” is such a light confection that it’s possible to let this go by and accept it without giving it too much importance.
But if you’re of a mind to believe in inviolate story logic, you have to wonder why you’re suddenly being lied to. That first act closer was not a dream sequence—we saw that the guys had the shit, as the jazzheads say. Why are we suddenly being told that a week later there has been no improvement—why is there not even a reference to the real promise they were showing us before? Hell, forget about promise, they were entirely viable! Why go back on the previous musical number?
I’ll tell you why.
Because now “The Full Monty” is marking time.
Because once those six guys get together, the story is effectively over. There is no question but that they will get it in gear for their big strip act—so now what the story has to do is tread water, with what seems either like padding existing crises or fabricating new ones that are of no consequence, articifial and/or easily resolved. (In truth, ironically, the musical follows the superstructure of the film fairly faithfully, but because its style is theatrically streamlined and slick rather than cinematically reportorial and literal, it builds differently. And because the musical chooses to create a conclusive showstopper out of the basketball moment—a moment that in the film marks but the beginning of a gradual progress for the wannabe strippers that is never thereafter denied—it telegraphs the success of its big finish.)
It’s hard to know how much the audience cares about this; “The Full Monty” has made such thorough friends with us in Act One, that I think it is forgiven all the lapses of Act Two. Especially as that promised big finale—which doesn’t disappoint—is eagerly anticipated.
Composer-lyricist David Yazbeck, like Mr. McNally, also shows his strengths most effectivrely at the top. His opening number, “Scrap”, sung by the unemployed steelworkers at the union hall about their plight, is a funny, smartass, streetwise winner that advertises a rare synthesis of pop and theatre techniques; the freshest element of which is Yazbeck’s mastery of funk—and, even lyrically, an iconic pop/jazz musician’s total irreverence. The rhymes aren’t always perfect, but the near-misses have an oddly forgivable silliness and slyness that make them seem more like mischievous variations than careless violations—and it works ingeniously well for the tale’s blue collar universe. Though the score continues thereafter to deliver the goods in terms of being amusing and accessible, it rarely achieves the opening’s sustained high quality and singularity. Most of the rest coasts on a novelty-song sensibility (e.g. the playing out of a wordplay or title gimmick)—except for the ballads, which are curiously mediocre. Still, Yazbeck’s is an auspicious debut for a pop writer (though his resume notes significant experience as a comedy writer too), and it’ll be fascinating to discover if he can pull the rabbit out of the hat in future shows or if this is a non-recurring phenomenon: a strictly chemical result of the right guy in the right room with the right collaborators and the right material.
Another reason why “The Full Monty” is a triumph for all of us who believe in storytelling first is the production itself, directed by Jack O’Brien. He’s done nice enough work with his company of well-cast actors (as has choreographer Jerry Mitchell); but it’s not an especially attractive production—in fact, there’s a bit of strip-hall cheesiness to it overall (the design is by John Arnone); and there doesn’t seem to be anything in the way of a directoral master plan, other than telling the tale in as straightforward and efficient a manner as possible. Which he does, and it’s not to be minimized, it is in fact the key to his success here—but on the scale of production values from one to ten, “The Full Monty” is a five. Maybe a six. A base-level minimum for Broadway caliber. But again, the audience cares not, because they’re involved.
The cast is terrific, other notables being Kathleen Freeman (as a tough-old-broad rehrearsal pianist, the one pro in the room), André de Shields (as the oldest member of the group, with a bad hip and unexpectedly spry James Brown moves) and Emily Skinner (as the downsized executive’s adoring, acquisitive and aggressively sensual scat-singing wife).
I think “The Full Monty” has also achieved something else that too few musicals manage these days; however lasting its Broadway success, it’s a show that can be done by stock-and-amateur groups on a reasonable budget, with no dependence upon special effects. This one will go right into the repertoire, believe me, and it’ll stay there probably for decades—or longer.
It’s nobody’s masterpiece, God knows—but it’s a straight-to-the-heart effort, and precisely what the masses (and the critics) want, both on Broadway and in the boonies. And while I don’t for a minute advocate that every musical can, or should, aspire to that—content must always dictate style and intention and form and venue—it really is the ultimate goal: a show that continues to entertain and pay off long after it closes.
And you thought going “The Full Monty” just meant showing your penis…Go to David Spencer's profile