Bare Necessities

The Full Monty began as one of those small, unassuming British movies about unemployed men in a gritty, industrial town -- in this case, Sheffield, Yorkshire. These workers see their neighbors, wives and girlfriends rushing to a Chippendales-style male strip performance, and they decide to raise some money by staging a strip show of their own. Cash is crucial for Jerry, who initiates the idea, because he's about to lose visitation rights with his son for not keeping up with his child-support payments. In the process of preparing for the show, the men discover all kinds of things about themselves and their relationships, both with each other and with their families. They test the limits of the traditional maleness they've been taught. They worry about the kinds of things women have always worried about: being too fat, too thin or under-endowed, being judged solely on looks instead of ability. And they ponder what remains of their very souls when there are no jobs to define them or paychecks to take home. Despite the men's surface toughness, and the film's hyper-realistic setting, The Full Monty is a fairy tale, but one with generous-hearted and perceptive things to say about the human condition.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I was reluctant to submit myself to the musical, which is set in Buffalo, New York. When Americans begin messing about with things British, they usually ruin them. They simplify and sentimentalize; they speed up the action (the British have far more tolerance for indecision and discursiveness; it's no accident that what Americans call a "hike," the English term a "ramble"). Americans also tend to prefer psychoanalysis to politics or ideas, so I thought there'd be an awful lot of inward-searching in The Full Monty, and precious little about the miseries of unemployment. Add to this the style of much contemporary musical comedy -- the grinning and the forced energy, the faked, presentational acting, the maniacal figures jiggling relentlessly to ear-damaging bursts of sound -- and I expected a fairly miserable evening.

None of my fears were realized. The musical is one hell of a good time; it's true to the spirit of the original and loads of fun, to boot. The characters have integrity and a certain reality, even though everyone is a bit too decent, and thorny conflicts are often too patly resolved. It's true that economic problems are somewhat glossed over. At least two of the men could get jobs if they were willing to take them; they refuse only because of a misplaced sense of masculinity. Nobody mentions the difficulties of getting by on the $10.95 an hour being offered. Harold Nichols, once the men's supervisor, has hidden his job loss from his wife. No sooner does he come clean, and discover that -- contrary to his expectations -- she still loves him, than another job appears.

But though it's sweetened with dollops of fantasy, The Full Monty sticks to the truth of the original story. It succeeds because of the genuine empathy it generates for the men and because of its straightforward and humorous take on sexuality.

How did director Jack O'Brien assemble so much singing and acting talent on one stage? And how did he and choreographer Jerry Mitchell work out the movement style? Most of the men have to be dancers, but they have to look as though they're not. Christian Anderson, playing Jerry, is a convincing working-class stiff, graceful in a boyish, posturingly macho way when he's strutting across the stage, but gangly and awkward when he tries to dance. He's also a complete charmer. Jerry's best friend, Dave, has been so rocked by unemployment that he loses all desire for the wife he loves. Confronted with the striptease idea, Dave worries about the rolls of flesh at his waist and consoles himself with food. Michael J. Todaro gives Dave an anxious but compelling decency. Auditioning for the group, Horse, in a strong and endearing performance by Cleavant Derricks, struts his stuff with confidence and sings about how much all women lust for a "Big Black Man" (though he pauses periodically to grimace as pain shoots through his aging hip). But Horse crumples later, when he realizes the striptease will reveal that he's not that big where it counts. Goofy little Ethan (Christopher J. Hanke), who spends much of the evening running at walls in the hope of emulating Donald O'Connor's vertical steps in Singin' in the Rain, turns out to be both sweetly gay and hugely well-endowed. I think my favorite of the men is Geoffrey Nauffts as Malcolm, whom we first meet when he's attempting suicide by running the exhaust hose into his car. Even once he's rescued, Malcolm doesn't completely lose the swoony quality he showed as the gas began to work on him; he's a strange, dreamy, off-kilter child. Only a Jerry Falwell could be coldhearted enough to resist Malcolm's quiet love affair with Ethan.

Robert Westenberg, as Harold Nichols, has a wonderful baritone (all the voices are excellent) and a light, precise way of dancing. He's matched by Christine Hudman, who played Vicki Nichols on opening night. Hudman, blonde, leather-pants clad and singing her lungs out about "Life With Harold," could resurrect the old phrase "va-va-voom" all by herself, and you can see why Harold would do just about anything to hold onto her. Jennifer Naimo as Dave's wife, Georgie, flies onstage at the play's beginning like a wickedly animated Raggedy Ann doll, but she brings a quiet tenderness to her scenes with Dave. As the men's pianist, an over-the-hill, onetime showbiz professional, Carol Woods draws focus every time she enters, and she reveals a soaring, unstoppable voice on "Jeanette's Showbiz Number." Denis Jones plays the one genuine Chippendale in the show, and he does a mean strip -- literally. It's fast, hungry and hard, a complete contrast to the other men's gentle, puzzled but ultimately triumphant movement explorations.

David Yazbek's music and lyrics are workmanlike: sometimes compelling, lyrical or clever, but rarely memorable (though I loved the song in which Dave and Jerry assured Malcolm they'd be happy to help him kill himself, in innumerable gruesome ways, because "you've got a friend"). John Arnone's minimal scene design is effective, particularly the patterns of slashes and chimneys against a red night sky.

Although the musical's ending struck me as unnecessarily coy -- the men strip to the skin, but are so strongly backlit that you can't see anything -- I think a lot of The Full Monty's strength comes from the willingness of director, choreographer and writer Terrence McNally to examine the body without prudery, to look at the poor, bare, forked thing itself -- not buffed, oiled or massaged, stripped of all cover and pretension -- and declare it good.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman