Six steel workers prepare to drop trou in the ultimately-engaging musical ‘The Full Monty.’ (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)

‘The Full Monty’ (finally) delivers the goods

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor

It’s a little amazing to realize that the musical adaptation of The Full Monty has been around for 17 years. Every time I see a production of it, that fact surprises me a bit… at least, in Act 1. The original Broadway production opened the same season as The Producers, one of those monster hits that redefined musicals for a time (The Book of Mormon and Hamilton have done the same). Monty had a respectable run of about two years, but I’m always reminded why it got upstaged.

It’s a flawed show. The score by David Yazbek has the lightweight quality of smooth jazz playing in an elevator. The characters include a clutch of angry white men who say homophobic, racist and misogynistic things without being checked by other characters. (For the most part, they evolve by the end, though that feels forced.) The premise is also gauze-thin: A half-dozen schlubby, out-of-work steel workers in Buffalo, N.Y., decide to become one-night-only strippers to raise some quick cash, apparently by selling 1,000 tickets for $50 apiece in this economically depressed blue-collar town that apparently is filled with randy women holding disposable cash. The pacing is wonky. The songs are a mixed bag (a handful are catchy; the rest are infinitely forgettable). The Act 1 finale lacks panache.

Yes, every time I sit down at the start of The Full Monty, I am, frankly, a tad bored… yet by the end, I’m completely won over.

Which must be part of the secret for why the show has lasted. Like the striptease at its climax, it flirts with you with good-natured but goofy sex appeal. It wasn’t meant for Broadway — it succeeds in a smaller, more intimate venue, maybe even better with unfamiliar actors. It brings you along.

The movie on which the musical is based was set in England, a place where the phrase “Full Monty” (referring, actually, to the penchant of British commander Field Marshal Montgomery to enjoy a hearty, everything-in-sight breakfast) actually might mean something. Terrence McNally’s script never tries to explain it, but it basically requires them to flash dick. In their hometown. In front of co-workers. While wrestling with body-dysmorphia issues.

But the psychologizing is secondary to the goal of assembling the lineup of strippers: Ringleader Jerry (Michael Isaac, whose accent sounds more Chicago than Upstate New York), buttoned-down Harold (Tom Grugle), overweight Dave (Greg Hullett), senior citizen Horse (Selmore Haines), meek Malcolm (Brandon Wilhelm), doofus Ethan (Aaron Green). These are hardly Marvel superheroes, but their efforts to do something daring fuels the action.

One of the delights of this production is the chance to enjoy characters and characterizations anew. Mary Campbell’s clown-colored Jeanette — an ol’ showbiz broad with boobs that swing like bell clappers — shuffles around with stooped shoulders and garish makeup like a vaudevillian lost in a modern musical. She’s a hoot. Aaron Green plays Ethan as a guileless and slightly brain-damaged gazelle, awkwardly attempting his Donald O’Connor “wall” trick with hilariously disastrous results. His wide-eyed pleasantness in the background buoys some of the slower moments.

But the show really comes together at the very end, when the guys are confronted with their own fears and regrets and yet  empowered to forge ahead. The title says everything — we’re given an in-the-altogether moment (slyly staged to maintain some modesty), but it’s the lead-up, the whimsy and well-intentioned energy, that makes it worth it. And Yazbek delivers his most infectious number when it counts: “Let It Go” is wonderfully hummable and burrows into your ear so that even days later you’re tapping your foot and smiling. That’s the legacy of The Full Monty: I’ve seen nudity onstage plenty of times, but rarely has the prospect of nudity filled me with such happiness.