‘Monty’ takes off in West End

Broadway tuner wins critical kudos, hopes for B.O. boost

LONDON — It’s been full speed ahead for “The Full Monty” here; after critics made it the most acclaimed new musical of the season, the only remaining goal is to play to full houses.

Local audiences, says lead producer Lindsay Law, “seem to have embraced the difference” of the musical compared to the movie, “and they scream and yell just as loudly as they do in New York. So much for the reserved British.”

The remaining question is box office. Even the smash London critical response last fall to “Kiss Me, Kate” never created the overnight stampede for tickets that such reviews would have caused in the U.S.

Budgeted just north of $4 million, the London “Monty” cost less than the Broadway version, which paid back earlier this year thanks to the numerous foreign territories where “Monty” has been licensed, Law says. (Productions are playing in Helsinki and Turin, with Madrid up next and a Mexico City version less than a week old.) A new U.S. tour, starring Carol Woods as the piano-playing Jeanette, starts rehearsals this week.

And whereas the Broadway staging at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre breaks near the 66% mark, the London incarnation has a less stressful 50% nut in a city where extensive advertising is less crucial — and costs less.

As with “Kiss Me, Kate” before it, “Monty,” says Law, “is going through a slow build. Every day, we sell far more tickets than the day before; at the same time, there are seats available” — quite a few, according to one observer at the late-Friday preview March 8, a perf that can be expected to come close to going clean. (Unlike New York, London’s “Monty” does no midweek matinee, opting instead for two Friday perfs — one at 5, the second at 8:30 — the second of which takes the production into overtime beginning at 11 15 p.m.)

Industry insiders pegged the pre-opening “Monty” advance in the region of £700,000 (just over $1 million), with one well-placed theater source arguing it will be word of mouth, far more than reviews, that ultimately makes “Monty” a hit — or not.

Still, the reviews can’t hurt. With one or two exceptions, the crix were unusually effusive, especially in a town where many New York musical hits have had a tough ride (“Rent” and “The Who’s Tommy,” to name just two).

“It works,” wrote Robert Gore-Langton in the Daily Express, giving the March 12 opening at the Prince of Wales Theater his highest four-star rating. Gore-Langton went on to call the David Yazbek-Terrence McNally American musicalization of the Oscar-nommed 1997 English flick “a touching and rampageous show that gets back to basics.” (Rare, incidentally, was the London review that managed to spell composer-lyricist Yazbek’s name correctly.)

Under the headline “Fabulous Monty pulls it off,” the Independent’s Paul Taylor thought the musical “improved significantly on (its) source,” adding, “If, by this time next year, ‘The Full Monty’ hasn’t won all the best-musical awards, I promise I’ll perform my fabled Dance of the Seven Veils outside the theater.”

Alerting readers that the musical “could have been a disaster,” Metro newspaper’s Warwick Thompson awarded the show five stars out of five: “It’s a fantastic show, with a toe-tapping hummable score and a rock-solid book which keeps everything necessary from the film and reinvents the rest.”

A tepid notice from the Guardian’s Michael Billington apart (“a campy, synthetic, showbiz affair”), the other pans seemed relatively tucked away — such as a small Sunday Times gibe that “what is lost is the intimacy and delicate humor of the film.” Or a fierce broadside from Evening Standard columnist Zoe Williams, who found it “hard to stomach all this talk of noble, unionized, manly toil from Americans.”

Still, the fact remains that “Monty” has made it past the first hurdle — persuading people in the country where the film was born that a song-and-dance transplant to Buffalo was worth England’s embrace.

“It’s been a great relief,” acknowledged Law, speaking March 18, 24 hours before he was due to return home to Connecticut. The response, he said, was “the kind you dream of: I don’t dare question any further than that. I thought they might drag up the British thing more.” Doubly so in a week that saw the openings of four American shows (“The Full Monty” followed by three plays).

Among other things, “Monty” reps by far the best reviews yet received in London by scribe McNally, whose straight plays on the West End have consistently tanked. His book for the musical, as it turned out, needed little tweaking, though a reference to Saran Wrap was changed to “cling film” in accordance with Blighty lingo.

So far, word on the street seems strong, even if more than one first-nighter wondered at the coyness of the final sequence in a country that lets it all hang out far more regularly than the prudish U.S. ever does.

Countered Law: “The huge burst of enthusiasm is just that the guys are going to do it, not that the audience is going to see it. It’s not, ‘Look, ooh, I saw something.’ It’s their pleasure in watching the men succeed, and the film doesn’t even show you that.”

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