With all eyes staring as it disrobes for the first time at San Diego’s Old Globe, the much-anticipated theatrical version of “The Full Monty” will never be a sleeper success like its film predecessor, which surprised the world with a quarter-billion-dollar take. Transposed from celluloid to stage and from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, N.Y., the story of working class blokes who doff their duds becomes a much broader comedy, with some of the more quietly amusing, nuanced humor of the original now tilting heavily toward the vaudevillian. Book writer Terrence McNally throws in plenty of penis jokes and knowing, we’re-putting-on-a-show gags, but keeps the tale intact; old pros know when not to mess with a good thing. What the show most essentially lacks at the moment, though, is the genuine yet unobtrusive sentiment of the movie — the sense that when these guys strip, it’s a feel-good triumph. Still, the show’s already an energetic if forgettable crowd-pleaser, and with a well-known, potentially critic-proof title, it has a strong shot at an extended Broadway run and life beyond that.
First-time theater composer David Yazbek provides a brassy, masculine, but repetitive score that never tops its opening number. After a brief, Chippendale’s-like strip show signaling what the working women in town are doing for a good time, we’re taken to a union meeting, where the unhappy, unemployed men introduce themselves through the song “Scrap.”
Hitting high notes for emotional effect, Yazbek cleverly melds the sound and the sentiment in an energetic tune, making its point well with the unifying lyric: “I want to understand/how I got to be a loser when I used to be a man.”
From there, we follow Jerry Lukowski (the characters’ names have been changed from the original), played by Patrick Wilson, and his overweight buddy Dave Bukatinsky (John Ellison Conlee), as they come upon the strip-show and sneak into the bathroom. They eavesdrop on a group of women, including Dave’s wife Georgie (Annie Golden) and Jerry’s ex Pam (Lisa Datz), putting down the local men and singing a rather flat rock tune, “It’s a Woman’s World” — the only number that belongs solely to the gals.
After an encounter with the buff, gay stripper who’s making the women cheer, Jerry sings “Red Camaro,” declaring defiantly that his “chassis is classy and his body’s good.” Despite dealing with a macho guy’s hurt feelings, it’s a testosterone-driven tune — imagine “West Side Story” composed by Bruce Springsteen.
Wilson is certainly plenty energetic, and he has the musical range and masculine demeanor for the role, but he focuses on resentment at the expense of his mischievous charm.
When Pam serves Jerry with notice that he’ll lose joint custody of their son Nathan (an able Thomas Michael Fiss) unless he comes up with $ 1,400, Jerry determines to make the money by putting together a strip show using local men with ordinary physiques. He sets out to convince Dave to join him, singing the more traditional-sounding show tune, “The Ship Sailed On.” From there, he puts together the rest of the team, and Yazbek gives each a song, starting with the initially suicidal Malcolm MacGregor (Jason Danieley), whom Jerry and Dave serenade with the sarcastic “Big Ass Rock” about the different ways they can help him to die.
They then recruit uptight Harold Nichols (Marcus Neville), who still hasn’t told his wife he’s lost his job. Through auditions, they bring in the final two members: the older black man Horse, played by Andre De Shields, who dances up a jazzy storm during the song “Big Black Man” and milks the genitalia humor for all it’s worth; and the generously endowed — we’re told — Ethan (Romain Fruge), who isn’t given a song but gets plenty of slapstick humor.
The first act closes with “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” in which the guys discover , using the movements of basketball, that dancing doesn’t have to be feminine or fake. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography, inspired by Gene Kelly, is successfully unelaborate yet graceful.
McNally adds another character to the audition and rehearsal scenes, a crusty old piano player named Jeanette, who becomes the most memorable element of the show. McNally doesn’t even bother with an explanation: “She just showed up, piano and all,” Jerry says.
No matter: Played by Kathleen Freeman she becomes a mouthpiece for lewd jokes and highly amusing tales about the theater. She even gets to lead off the second act with a show-stopping comic number telling all the guys what a disaster the show is.
The second act tries hard to touch the heart as well as the funny bone. In the first act, for example, Dave sings “You Rule My World” to his oversized tummy; in the second, his wife sings it to him. Jerry sings a song to his kid, “Breeze Off the River,” with Yazbek returning to overuse the wind metaphor later on as well. Nathan doesn’t get a song, which should really be remedied since he’s unquestionably a lead. The father-son relationship as a whole needs some development, although it’s probably more of a directing issue than a fault with the book.
Director Jack O’Brien gives the whole show a quick pace and a polished sheen, but he has glossed over the smaller beats that could help the show pick up some thematic, and even narrative, steam. The emotional momentsbetween the characters — an auditioner who tells Jerry that “this is no place for kids”; Vicki’s discovery that Harold has been lying to her for months; Nathan’s final harangue to get Jerry onstage — all feel rushed and muddy.
Sometimes it seems the effectively staged transitions take priority over the characters. Above all, the through-line involving the characters’ bodily self-esteem doesn’t come through, in part because once they start to take off their clothes, these scenes are played almost solely for laughs.
John Arnone’s two-element set needs a significant re-thinking. The movable walls, intended to suggest corrugated metal but painted a cheery reddish orange and lime green, are the functional parts of the design that work perfectly well. They suggest various locales with only a minimal need for scenic accessories. But there are also elongated set pieces — distorted, cartoon-like, and flat — emerging from the wings of the stage that are all wrong for the sensibility of the piece. They never suggest a real place populated by real people.
There are no knockout performances here, although Conlee and Freeman are the most charismatically likable. Yazbek never really gives anyone a chance to show off vocally, and after a while the orchestra begins to sound like it’s playing the same few notes over and over. There definitely is a need for more varied tones and rhythms. Whereas the end of the film sent the audience out humming “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” the final number here, tastefully staged using backlighting, sums up this “The Full Monty” in its current form: It’s entertaining, light-hearted and shows signs of charm, but it’s neither uplifting nor memorable.