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Blue Collar, and Little Else
By B. A. Nilsson

The Full Monty
Book by Terrence McNally, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, directed by Jack O’Brien
Proctor’s Theatre, Dec. 14

Terrence McNally had a big country’s worth of cities to choose from when he transplanted the action of The Full Monty from Sheffield, England, to the United States. But he set the unemployed steelworkers in Buffalo, a depressingly credible choice. When a character mentions that his brother moved to Albany to work in a mall, it gets a laugh of startled recognition. Schenectady, which started its theatrical identity as the butt of many a vaudeville joke, isn’t mentioned, but given the absurd limitation the city imposed (see Art Murmur, page 40), McNally justifiably might be tempted to add something.

Getting back to Buffalo, it’s an excellent choice. The job market is as bad there as anywhere, and that probably inspired a sense of fellow feeling wherever the show played during the lengthy tour that just ended. Based on a 1997 British hit movie, the show captures the same sense of camaraderie we felt for those Sheffield steelworkers, so desperate both for money and a sense of self-esteem that they decide to stage a striptease show.

The musical Full Monty opened on Broadway three years ago to the same critical compromise the movie enjoyed: too lightweight to be taken seriously, but too much fun to be ignored. And audiences for both have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. (The title, by the way, is a fairly recent British slang term equivalent to “the whole shebang,” possibly originating as a salute to suits obtained from British tailor Montague Burton.)

Among McNally’s credits are the plays Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Master Class; his previous musical books include Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman. He brings to Monty a fleet and funny style as well as the ability to write characters with compassion, informing them with compelling qualities.

Even a cartoony sequence like the attempted suicide of hapless Malcolm MacGregor (played with absolute conviction by Leo Daignault) becomes not only a funny scene but also the lead-in to the hilarious song “Big-Ass Rock,” a trio with former shopmates Jerry and Dave.

It’s Jerry who puts together the striptease scheme, and, as played by the excellent Christian Anderson, he’s every blue-collar worker you’ve ever known who religiously plays the lottery. Anderson has a voice that’s more pop-rock than Broadway, and that suits the David Yazbek score just fine—this was pop-song composer Yazbek’s first foray into a book show.

Dave, Jerry’s best friend, is the voice of reason, and Eric Leviton adds to that the kind of deadpan wisecrack delivery that defines a comic sidekick. Both men are dealing with marital problems: Jerry needs to come up with child-support payments in order to keep seeing his son, Nathan (played by Aaron Nutter when I saw the show, rotating the role with Ryan Postal). Dave, depressed by joblessness and self-conscious about his enormous belly, can’t bring himself to be intimate with his wife, who is played with tremendous gusto by Jennifer Naimo.

She’s enjoying a girls’ night out at the local strip joint as the show opens, and that kicks into gear the series of brainstorms that leads to Jerry’s scheme. Along the way, he recruits other would-be strippers: “Horse” Simmons, for instance, played to the hilt by Milton Craig Nealy with the showstopping number “Big Black Man” as a centerpiece; energetic Ethan, whose running gag is a running gag as he tries (and fails) to emulate Donald O’Connor’s “Singing in the Rain” standing somersault. Played by Trey Ellett, he’s pure, infectious energy.

Older and wiser is former supervisor Harold (Robert Westenberg), who signs on as dance instructor on the condition that nobody tell his wife he lost his job six months ago. Broadway veteran Westenberg displayed outsized lupine genitalia in the original production of Into the Woods, and brings a distinctive staccato style and splendid singing voice to the role of Harold.

It’s hard to single out any member of this amazing cast for extra praise, but Jane Connell deserves plaudits as the guys’ feisty accompanist, warning them in “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number” that “things could be better ’round here.”

Broadway productions don’t always fit comfortably in the touring-company package, but this one worked excellently. All it lacked was the large orchestra that gives musical theater its unique sound. Certainly the singing and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography kept the evening vibrant. And that energy surged right through to the very end, despite the Schenectady-imposed modesty devices you couldn’t see anyway. Given the issues of trust and vulnerability that characterize the show, this “moral crusade” the city has been waging looked more ridiculous still. Of course, none of the city so-called fathers were there to see and understand that. Schenectady typically can’t wait for one foot to heal before it shoots the other one.

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