The Full Monty at TriArts Sharon Playhouse

By David Begelman

The 1997 British film The Full Monty, like countless movies turned into musicals, was one in which everything came together in the most delightful way. My hunch is that its production team had no idea of what a resounding success it would become. Of course, it had the advantage of an talented English cast, including Robert Carlyle, Tom Wilkinson, and Mark Addy. But their obvious abilities only enhanced what was already a damn good script. And then there was the sound track, including the incomparable Tom Jones with his rendition of numbers like You Can Leave Your Hat On.

The film tells the story of a group of unemployed steel workers in Sheffield, Yorkshire, who hit upon the idea of becoming strippers—with a difference. Their attraction would be to titillate female audiences with a final display of stark nudity (“the Full Monty”), rather than only suggestive strip-tease, as popularized by such American groups as The Chippendales.

David Yazbek’s and Terrence McNally’s musical adaptation of the film is one that sticks remarkably close to the story line of the film, except its characters are unemployed Americans in Buffalo. The show broke box office records internationally, and was staged in Hong Kong, Iceland, Spain, Canada, Greece, and South Korea—not, understandably, always in English. It garnered nine Tony Award nominations, eleven Drama Desk Award nominations, and a Theatre World Award.

The TriArts production of the musical packs as dazzling a wallop as you’re likely to see this season in theaters around Connecticut. The Full Monty at Sharon Playhouse will have you bouncing out of your seat from the instant the curtain goes up. Except there is no curtain initially, only a stage adorned with rather drab and rusting steel beams that give no hint of what is to come: a rollicking, hilarious, and completely satisfying evening in the theater.

Not that the Yazbek/McNally musical is without drawbacks. The show tends to be overly long. Some of its scenes as written drag on or smack of redundancy, as when husbands and wives or the two gay members of the group sing duets dripping with more sentimentality than you’re ready to digest. Songs are clever, lilting, and well-suited to ongoing action, if not particularly memorable. All of which is beside the point when it comes to the TriArts production itself.

The performers deliver a smash, and they look so good on stage, it’s hard to believe that only two cast members are Actor’s Equity performers. These are Scott Laska as Jerry, reprising the Robert Carlyle role of “Gaz” in the film, and Richard Waits as Noah “Horse” T. Simmons, the only black member of the group. If other routines in the show were enjoyable to watch, Mr. Waits’s rendition of “Big Black Man” was as close to sensational as you get: a number in which Horse’s musicality and gift for movement break through the orthopedic problems forever plaguing his dance routines.

The show, like the movie (which forfeited an Academy Award to that lumbering and overfinanced pachyderm, Titanic), blends humor with poignancy. It actually covers a wide range of issues, including father rights, male bonding, unemployment, gender issues, depression, impotency, and suicide, although even this last theme is turned humorously on its head during the course of the action.

Mr. Laska’s Jerry is the central role in the show, and this performer is always a pleasure to watch on stage, as well as impressive in his vocal numbers, despite some difficulty in the higher register.

Jerry comes up with the idea of forming a male strip-tease group that will call itself “Hard Steel.” His plan is sparked by the need to make the money to redeem himself. He wants to show his wife Pam (played convincingly by Lori J. Belter) that he can be a provider, rather than being unemployed and shiftless. The reformation will also prevent him from getting distanced from his son, Nathan (played exceptionally well by 12 year old Jack C. DiFalco, and comparing favorably with young William Snape’s ingenuous portrayal in the film.)

Other members of the cast contribute solidly to the success of the TriArts production. Mention should be made of all the strippers, including Jason Winfield as Ethan (whose attempts to do somersaults off walls like Donald O’Connor in Singing in the Rain always end in bodily disaster short of concussion), Michael Dunn as a believable and thin-skinned Malcolm, Michael Britt as Harold, a husband who cannot bring himself to let his wife know he has been unemployed, but especially Andy Lindberg as Dave, a begrudging stripper who has a hard time getting past his impotence, obesity, and a temporary crisis with his adoring wife before his final one-night-only stand.

Glenda Lauten as Jeanette, the strippers’ accompanist, was a real presence on stage—when she wasn’t dimly visible as a pile of red hair behind her piano. Ms. Lauten is a terrific belter, and a pro at caustic quips that had the audience close to losing it. Accompanying the strippers on the keyboard she observes laconically: “Jeez, this is like working with Lawrence Welk!”

This reviewer was most impressed by Bob Durkin’s capable direction and choreography and Michael Berkeley’s musical direction. His offstage orchestra of seven other instrumentalists gave the show a shine that would have been sorely missed without it. Chris Dallos’s lighting design was tremendously effective in highlighting the action on stage. Erik D. Diaz’s scenic design was innovative, and only occasionally encumbered by shifting sets on a darkened stage with silhouetted extras moving things about, a sometime handicap of intricate sets in productions elsewhere.

The Full Monty opened on June 19, and continues through July 6, 2008 at Sharon’s TriArts Playhouse. Tickets can be purchased on the internet www.triarts.net or calling 860.364.SHOW

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