By Colin Douglas
The sad state of the economy and how unemployment impacts the life of the average Joe provides the conflict in many recent stories. Whether set in Sheffield, England, where the original film, The Full Monty, takes place, or Buffalo, NY, the setting for the 2000 musical version of this show, joblessness not only results in poverty, but causes depression and issues of self-respect.
Multi Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally adapted and Americanized the original British screenplay for the stage, and the show’s sassy and exciting musical score is provided by David Yazbek (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”). Despite the bleak hopelessness that inspires this musical, this is a story of friendships, of a positive father and son relationship, of love and caring and about how desperate times call for desperate measures.
A group of desperate, unemployed steelworkers, struggling to pay their bills, their alimony, their child support and still somehow manage to put bread on the table, begin to lose their spirit and self-respect. Unable to provide, the men start to feel like “Scrap,” while watching their sense of masculinity disappear. When a local appearance by the Chippendales creates unexpected excitement, this group of out-of-work men decide to cash in on the idea and form their own local, all-male troupe of strippers. To make their act even more provocative, they advertise that they’re going all the way. Not just stripping down to g-strings, the men promise to provide audiences with “the full monty.”
John Glover directs this Kokandy Productions musical with feeling and forcefulness. Always aware that heart and high stakes guide this play, Glover has drawn some very natural performances from his company of actors while allowing the humor to flow from the situation. Danny Spagnuolo’s choreography is spirited and filled with all the exotic athletic moves and bumps and grinds expected from this show. Kory Danielson’s musical direction is dynamic and his eight-member band, housed high above the stage, is solid.
The problem comes from the way this production is staged. In this long, narrow theatrical space, most of the audience is seated alley-style, with a small proscenium stage located at one end, a versatile, low-rise platform at the other and a fluid expanse in between, bringing actors mere inches from the front row. The difficulty is that the show sometimes feels like a tennis match, with scenes often alternating between the extreme ends of the room. When the proscenium stage is utilized, an audience member has to really crane his neck in order to see, often blocking the theatergoer’s view next to him. This, unfortunately, makes for a painful and frustrating experience.
The production’s ensemble of actors, however, are all very good, with some standouts. Garret Lutz is particularly strong and affecting as Jerry, the character who comes up with the idea of raking in a fortune by forming a local ensemble of all-male exotic dancers. Garret’s relationship with his tween-age son Nathan is honest and provides both the heart of this show and the strength of Lutz’s performance. His beautiful “Breeze Off the River,” sung over his son’s sleeping form, is filled with truth and emotion. The role of Nathan is shared by two young actors, Seth Steinberg (very funny and moving on opening night) and Kyle Klein, II. Scott Danielson brings gravitas, determination and empathy to his portrayal of Dave, Jerry’s kind, self-conscious buddy. The chemistry between these two actors is genuine and creates the soul of this musical; their songs “Man,” “Big-Ass Rock” and the touching “You Rule My World” are some of this production’s musical highlights.
Caron Buinis is hilarious in the guaranteed scene-stealing role of Jeanette, the pensioner pianist and showbiz veteran who provides more than just musical accompaniment for her team of amateur dancers. Buinis’ very funny “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number” opens Act II on the perfect note. Randolph Johnson is terrific as Horse, the seasoned African American man with a golden voice and all the right moves. Colette Todd and Eric Lindahl make a funny, but lovingly devoted couple as Vicki and Harold Nichols. When former plant manager Harold is discovered taking ballroom lessons, he’s grudgingly persuaded to join Jerry’s dance troupe as choreographer. Marsha Harman is a brassy, belting Georgie, Dave’s patient and loving wife, and Laura McClain plays Pam, Jerry’s wife, with spunk and spirit.
One of the strongest performances in this production is provided by George Toles as Malcolm. As the closeted mama’s boy who, upon losing his job, can only see suicide as a way out, Toles is sweetly sincere and truthful as a young man coping with problems only he can understand. Toles’ sensitive rendition of “You Walk With Me,” performed with Greg Foster, as Ethan, brings the audience to tears.
A musical that offers a touching, funny story that average theatergoers can relate to, and a score that sends them out of the theatre humming and smiling, is just what many need these days. This relatively young theatre company keeps topping itself by offering seldom-produced, excellently performed musicals that impress, inspire and thoroughly entertain, while challenging its actors and artists to reach for new heights. With the exception of some difficult staging, this musical about real people is a real winner and should prove a popular Spring offering for Chicagoland audiences.
“The Full Monty” is presented through April 12 by Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available on line here or by phone at (773) 975-8150. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas and information about this and other area productions are found at www.theatreinchicago.com.