Dallas — What’s not to cheer for in a musical with a lean script, a jazzy score and an ensemble of first-rate actors (sans gym-built bodies) willing to drop their pants at the climactic upbeat finish? Not a dang thang!
Better get tickets now for The Full Monty, the musical based on the 1997 British indie film of the same name. For the musical that premiered on Broadway in 2000, multi-awardx-winning playwright Terrence McNally and composer David Yazbek shifted the film scene from out-of-work steelworkers in Sheffield in the 1980s to Buffalo in the here and now. Directed with scrumptious detail and panache by Uptown’s veteran musical queen Cheryl Denson, the show tells the story of a bunch of skilled workers, laid-off indefinitely from jobs that gave them respect and a living wage, who get together to raise some desperately needed cash by becoming—for one blazing moment—strippers going all the way.
Unseen, but playing Yazbek’s swinging score sharply all night, is an eight-piece band conducted expertly by musical director Kevin Gunter, who also plays a sweet keyboard.
As they bumble their way through wonky auditions and hilarious bump-and grind lessons, the men shed their shirts and pants along with their fears and anxieties built up over months of depressing unemployment. The buck-naked truth turns out to be that community dignity and family love don’t depend on the size of your privates or your paycheck, so much as honesty and the courage to stand up—or to go on with the show, even if the standing part doesn’t work just right. These guys get their pants off and get themselves together. “Take it off!” shout their wives and lovers and the opening night audience on Friday. Good idea. Drop all those pretenses and fears.
Bart McGeehon’s set design is a huge backdrop of factory-style windows that looks terrific as a vacant factory, a men’s club, a street scene with residential doors, and a makeshift nightclub. Denson’s nuanced direction keeps the beautifully cast 19-member ensemble feeling the sweet humor of the work. She allows each of the six men and their boogie lady piano player to have their laughs and their revealing characterizations, without missing a beat in this forward moving production.
Michael Isaac is Jerry, the cocky group ringleader who needs money fast to pay off back child support or risk losing partial custody of his loyal 12-year-old son Nathan, played by young Parker Niksich with confidence and innocent charm. Especially in the scenes between father and son, Isaac reveals a tenderly paternal side to Jerry’s character. His true tenor voice is never strained, whether shouting out the lyrics of “Michael Jordan’s Ball” while executing Jeremy Dumont’s terrific basketball-inspired choreography, or in a lyrical ballad, like “Breeze Off the River.”
Greg Hullett is Dave, a quietly staunch family man, too proud to turn to his wife (fiercely female Jacie Hood Wenzel) in his sadness. He’s the shy guy with a paunch, Jerry’s chubby chum who’d do anything for his best buddy except suffer the humiliation of stripping to his love handles in public.
Tom Grugle brings wry humor and an aging exec’s trim elegance to his role as Harold, the plant boss who’s never told his spendthrift wife (spirited, surprising Liz Millea) the plant is closed.
Selmore Haines III brings down the house as Horse in his hilarious delivery of “Big Black Man,” the send-up and homage song to James Brown sung by Andre DeShields in the original production, and for which he received a Tony nomination. (DeShields recently played Prospero in the Dallas Theater Center’s award-winning The Tempest, the Musical, co-produced with The Public Theater in New York.) Not to be outdone by the younger members auditioning for the strip job, Horse drags his arthritic bones to the music, until he’s doing the funky moves with the vigor of a man that women would give up the monthly rent to just lay their eyes on. “Every woman loves a big black man,” he sings, and every gender present clapped their hands and shouted for this groovy dude.
Brandon Wilhelm is Malcomb, a withdrawn mama’s boy on the verge of suicide when the guys drag him out of a Volkswagen parked on the stage, and sing a funny parody of every friend song ever called “Big Ass Rock,” promising to come up with much cooler ways to kill yourself. This song is a show stopper for all kinds of reasons. Wilhelm has a sweet, clear tenor voice and in his duet, “You Walk with Me,” with the well-hung Ethan (played by sexy Aaron Green with physical abandon and sly humor), both men join voices in an emotional hymn that is at once an elegy and a love song.
These wannabe Chippendale strippers are out of shape and know nothing about belt-riding routines. They get a sneer from the pro their wives are paying big bucks to see, played by gorgeous and ripped Jonathan Hardin. Enter Jeanette, a wise-cracking elderly show biz pianist who remembers that Arthur Godfrey made a pass at her. Mary Campbell pulls out all the stops, and makes us love this ribald gal as much as we love laughing at her salty advice. Like all the funny stories in the show, Jeanette’s laughs rise out of the situation and her character, and don’t feel at all like slapped on one-liners. Plus, Campbell easily shifts from tough old broad to compassionate colleague when Horse makes a shaky confession about his vaunted prowess.
Suzi Cranford’s costumes and the handsome wigs and makeup, designed by Coy Covington and Michael Moore, bring an additional glossy creativity to this buoyant production.
You gotta love this bunch of renegades as they gather their courage to face the lights and create the frenzy promised on the ticket. On opening night, the guys got a standing ovation for their last number, “Let It Go.” Go see for yourself—and let it go, already.