Transposed from celluloid to stage, and from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, N.Y., “The Full Monty’s” story of working class blokes who doff their duds becomes a much broader comedy, with some of the original’s quietly amusing, nuanced humor 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 lacks at the moment, though, is the heartfelt sincerity, 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 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 signals what the working women in town are doing for a good time, we’re taken to a union meeting, where the unemployed men introduce themselves through the song “Scrap.”
Hitting high notes for emotional effect rather than melody, Yazbek cleverly melds the sound and the sentiment in an energetic tune, hitting 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 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 Georgia (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.” This is the only number that belongs solely to the gals.
After an encounter with the buff (and clearly gay) stripper who’s making the women cheer, Jerry sings “Red Camaro,” declaring defiantly that his “chassis is classy and his body’s good.” 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 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 persuades Dave to join him (singing a traditional-sounding show tune, “The Ship Sailed On”) and puts together the rest of the team. Yazbek gives most a song: the initially suicidal Malcolm MacGregor (Jason Danieley), uptight Harold Nichols (Marcus Neville), older black man Horse, played by Andre De Shields (who dances up a jazzy storm and milks the genitalia humor for all it’s worth) and the generously endowed — we’re told — Ethan (Romain Fruge).
In the first-act closer, “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” the guys use basketball movements and discover 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 a character, crusty old piano player Jeanette, who becomes the most memorable element of the show. McNally doesn’t 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 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. Nathan doesn’t get a song, which should really be remedied since he’s unquestionably a lead.
Director Jack O’Brien gives the show a quick pace and a polished sheen, but he has glossed over smaller beats that could help the show pick up some thematic, and even narrative, steam. Emotional moments between 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 — feel rushed and muddy.
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. All of these issues can be dealt with over time.
John Arnone’s two-element set, however, needs a more significant re-thinking. The movable walls, intended to suggest corrugated metal, work perfectly well. 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.
The sound, designed by Jeff Ladman, involves having the performers miked at all times, even when in their skivvies.
There are no knockout performances, although Conlee and Freeman are the most charismatically likable. Yazbek never really gives anyone a chance to show off vocally. 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.