Book by Terrence McNally
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbeck
Directed by Jack O'Brien
at the Elgin Theatre until July 15
189 Yonge Street/416-872-1212 OR 1-800-461-3333

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

The Full Monty was eclipsed at this year's Tony Awards by The Producers. I haven't seen Mel Brooks' adaptation of his cult classic, but I have seen the British film that inspired this Terrence McNally-David Yazbeck 'take it off, take it all off' musical. And I'm not at all surprised that it came up empty at Broadway's annual prize-giving ceremony several weeks ago.

The story of six out-of-work guys has been moved from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, New York, and the trans-Atlantic crossing reflects a change in more than local dialects. Where the film was character-driven, the musical is just driven to pitch its energy and its pace at a full throttle with little space left for breathing. Or thinking.

Yes, this is a musical and ticket prices are the now customary too-high-by-far $40-99. There are musicals that do not punctuate every thought and every line of dialogue with 'loud-louder-loudest' as the motivation. Body microphones are de rigueur, I know, but how are we supposed to respond to any scene between characters as anything more than an infomercial when screaming is the sole delivery by all cast members? (And why, when the men are stripped to their shorts, must their battery packs be larger and more prominent than their own private packets?)

The original film managed to define separate characters and credible lives in a world sadly empty. The fact that the guys could define themselves and their sexuality only through their work was unique, and the longing for emotional contact between the men and their wives was always poignant. The musical cheapens most of this material, setting its sights on punch lines that aren't especially timely or funny and on a score that interferes with the story almost without exception.

A musical that exists for the pure pleasure of entertaining the audience can get away with a lot more than a musical that wants you to believe in and care for its characters. The Producers is, by all accounts, in the former category. Its astounding success may also be attributable to the fact that it reinforces a style of writing and performing that does away with any desire to connect 'us' with 'them', except as onlookers. By contrast, The Full Monty doesn't really know what it wants. We are asked to care about several of the guys' lives: the father who is at risk of losing his young son; the fat guy who is unable to tell his wife why he is distant from her; and the executive who cannot bring himself to admit his failure. But then jokes abound that contradict the tone already established and we are asked to respond regardless of the seriousness of someone's situation. It's bewildering because it's slightly schizophrenic and it has the whiff of committee creativity.

The writers do slow down and provide serious moments, but they are stock in nature and lumpen in delivery. The young man who sings at his mother's funeral, while his male partner (another of the sextet) supports him, is a scene and/or number straight off a playwright's checklist. Nothing about the moment rings true because we have seen and heard it all before. And this is the case with much else in the script.

American writing tends to come in a few flavours, but none is less appealing than the pandering tone set by The Full Monty. We aren't required, or permitted, to think. Nor are we invited to follow any development of person or incident. Instead, we are hectored into hooting and hollering when the guys shake their clothed and unclothed bottoms. We are encouraged to scream with laughter as one guy drops his drawers and another, older guy suggests that he is King of the Cocks.

And the female characters exist as though their brains were made of styrofoam. They rant and they whine and, with one exception, they don't approximate human beings any more than the young Suzanne Somers approximated a living, breathing pulse. The ladies are presented as coarse and unrefined leeches. They either dress badly and behave worse, or they are determined to spend their husbands' every dollar. No wonder that the guys spend so much time with one another. And it's amazing that only two of them seek one another for emotional and sexual comfort.

I love musicals. Really, I do. And I couldn't have been more surprised at my reaction to this show. Perhaps this production just doesn't come together as does the production in New York. Perhaps the critical response on Broadway prepared me for something that couldn't match the hype. Perhaps the fact is that The Full Monty is simply a not very good musical overpraised by a critical press determined to buoy up as much as possible for the commerce of Broadway.

This particular company is starting its North American tour here, in Toronto. By the time it reaches Chicago, Washington, Boston and San Francisco, among other cities, it may be subtler in its delivery and the ensemble may be less frenetic than they are right now. But as it stands, this Full Monty is barely half-baked.

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