First things first: the six leading men in Bucks County Playhouse’s production of The Full Monty really DO strip down to their birthday suits in the final scene. But it’s not the bare behinds and the intimation of going "the full monty" (taking it all off and going full frontal – albeit with some well-placed hats obscuring the monty’s in question) that makes this musical work. It’s the emotional stripping that the men do as they go about reclaiming their self esteem and self respect after life has beaten them down – as well as the fun the actors playing them seem to be having – that gives this play its heart. Unfortunately, that might not be enough to recommend it.
Based on the 1997 movie of the same name about desperate, unemployed steelworkers in northern England, the musical version – with book by Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally and score by David Yazbeck – has been relocated to Buffalo, NY. Jerry Lukowski (Scott Laska) and his best buddy, Dave (Bob Marcus), like many of their co-workers, have been laid off from their jobs at the mill. With no transferable skills, the men cannot find work and are feeling like "Scrap," as they sing in the opening song: "I want to understand how I got to be a loser and I used to be a man."
The men see their wives and girlfriends (and in the case of Jerry, his ex-wife) in office jobs, spending considerable amounts of money to see the Chippendale’s-type dancers who breeze through town regularly for one-night engagements at a local bar. In the meantime, the only prospects for these men are jobs as cashiers in big box stores, or, if they are really in luck, security guard posts at one of the same. When Jerry’s inability to keep up with child-support payments jeopardizes his joint-custody agreement with ex-wife Pam, (Kendra Heverlo), his meeting with a successful member of one of the traveling male strip shows gives him the idea that maybe he and some local boys could make quick cash by stripping, too.
He first recruits the loyal, overweight Dave, whose marriage is struggling due to his quickly declining self esteem and expanding waist. Jerry tells Dave in "Man": "Don’t do it to be the most talked-about man in Buffalo. Don’t do it for all the money you’re gonna rake in. Do it for yourself, Davie-boy. Show yourself the stuff you’re made of."
The songs in "The Full Monty" are not likely to be the sort that you’ll sing when you leave the theater (except maybe the finale, "Let it Go"), but there are some fun ones that add to the story of each "recruit," and all six of the men in the troupe have wonderful voices. Now and then Laska seems to be straining for a couple of his high notes, but one can forgive him because he reaches the emotional notes just fine.
The rest of the team consists of sensitive and suicidal Malcom (Curtis Conlin), who lives with his aging, ill mother; Ethan (Peter Martino), who can’t dance but has other "assets" that the might go over big with the ladies; "Horse" (Lesly Tyrell Donald), who has smooth dance moves and a reputation as a "big black man" that he is afraid will disappoint; and, rounding out the troupe, former plant boss, Harold (Jim Lynch), who has also been let go but who hasn’t gotten up the nerve to tell his yuppie wife yet – six months later. Also joining the men is Jeanette (Penny Larsen), an old vaudeville performer who just shows up one day and offers to be their accompanist.
Once Jerry’s "team" has been recruited he convinces his troupe that in order to combat the fact that they are not exactly Chippendale’s guys, they might be able to bring in really big money if they are willing to go for "the full monty." Once the men start rehearsing, they begin to fight with issues that might ordinarily be considered the exclusive domain of women about to hit the beach after a long, cold winter. They fret about the size of the stomachs, their "pigeon chests," their gray hair or lack of it, and, not surprisingly their "size." In "The Goods," Dave says what each of the guys is thinking: "We just better hope the women are more forgiving than we are; if they’re looking at us the way we’re usually looking at them, we’re in trouble."
The women in the cast would probably get by just fine on the beach but their characters are barely indistinguishable. Harold’s wife, Vikki (Johanna Lloyd), gets to vamp it up a bit and her voice was great, and Penny Larsen’s Jeanette provides some laughs with her constant references to old time performers whenever she tries to buck up the men, but over all, the female characters are secondary in this production.
Due to the subject matter, the "colorful" language that gets tossed around liberally, and that "full monty" ending, it probably goes without saying that this is not a show for the whole family. But a mature teenager would probably do OK seeing the R-rated subject matter that boasts a G-rated heart. The show has plot twists that you can usually see coming a mile away but the energy and talents of the men in the cast make up for a lot of weaknesses in the story.
Bucks County Playhouse’s production values could use some improvement. Linda Bee-Stockton’s costumes are fine, as is the set was OK, but not unlike something you might find in a quality high school production. The fact that many of the rolling set pieces squeaked when they were being pushed out on stage didn’t help. Also unfortunate are the visible head microphones. With tan colored wires rapped around each cast members head, and the slim-wired mikes running along the sides of their faces, each cast member looked like they were wearing a hands free cell phone attachment.
Members of the press are usually placed on the center aisle. However, our unusual seats – my neice and I sat in the two far left front row seats because my niece is temporarily wheelchair-bound after a car accident, but Bucks has no other available seat for wheelchair patrons (nor do they have a wheelchair ramp, so getting up the steps into the theater was a bit of an adventure) – afforded us an unfortunate vantage point. We had views backstage to the wings because there were no curtains covering them. I saw stage hands moving set pieces into place, people walking off stage and changing costumes, as well as just standing around backstage waiting to go on. This is something the theater should remedy.
Another unfortunate by-product of our vantage point was that in several scenes, set pieces were placed at the edges of the stage, almost completely obscuring our view. While I understand that no direction can assure that all theater-goers see everything that is going on on the stage, director Stephen Casey seems to have directed the show for folks in the center section only; again, I do think this is fixable.
Regardless, if you’re just out for a stroll in New Hope between now and September 17, the performances in "The Full Monty" might be enough to win you over. And if not that, there’s always that revealing finale.
"The Full Monty," through Sunday, September 17, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, PA. $22 to $24. 215-862-2041. www.buckscountyplayhouse.com.