Audiences’ established affection for good-natured naughtiness is amply indulged in “The Full Monty,” Broadway’s latest screen-to-stage transfer. By the standards of previous entries in this fast-growing genre — “Footloose” and “Saturday Night Fever” for starters — “The Full Monty” earns high marks. A working-class musical aimed at an accordingly broad audience, it’s funny, earthy and appealingly performed. Challenging or interesting it isn’t, however — musically or otherwise — and its G-string of a plot is stretched pretty taut across nearly three hours of stage time. Nevertheless, thanks to the name recognition provided by its popular screen predecessor, the show has a good chance at seducing a major audience, even if critics and musical theater aficionados may not be cheering along with the leering masses at the bump-and-grind finale.
The movie’s North England locale has been switched to Buffalo, N.Y., but otherwise the stage version hews closely to the particulars of the hit movie, replicating most of the characters, plot hitches and even many lines of dialogue. Its core cast of working-class lads are again unemployed steel mill workers.
In the musical’s engaging opening number, “Scrap,” the men sing of their frustration at being robbed of their self-esteem along with their paychecks. David Yazbek, a composer and lyricist new to Broadway, invests this sharp-edged tune with exotic rhythmic colors reminiscent of British pop band XTC, an admitted favorite. The number, alas, promises more invention than the rest of the score really delivers, despite its polish and pleasantness; Yazbek mostly sticks to a mellow pop-rock idiom, with a few traditional Broadway pastiche numbers to spice things up. There’s nothing to knock your socks off.
Much more than socks come off our protagonists, of course. Sneaking into the local Chippendales-style club one night, the show’s central characters, Jerry Lukowski (Patrick Wilson) and Dave Bukatinsky (John Ellison Conlee), are abashed to hear the local women extolling the pleasures of financial and emotional independence in “It’s a Women’s World.” They’re also chagrined at seeing the cocky self-assurance of a gay dancer who’s giving the girls such a thrill.
As in the picture, Jerry’s in particular trouble, what with his ex-wife, Pam (Lisa Datz), threatening to take full custody of their son, Nathan, if he doesn’t start paying his child-support bills on time. With his back against the wall, Jerry hits on the idea of staging a one-night-only strip extravaganza featuring “real men.” With the promise of a $50,000 payoff in mind (surely a rather large sum for one night in Buffalo?), Jerry and Dave put together a six-man crew.
They’re joined first by Malcolm MacGregor (Jason Danieley), whom they discover midsuicide attempt in one of the show’s funniest scenes. The black-comic “Big Ass Rock,” inspired by a few lines of dialogue in the movie, is a highlight of the score, in which Jerry and Dave discuss in song various ways in which they might aid Malcolm in his quest to off himself. While his music is not always flavorful, Yazbek’s lyrics have an edgy, youthful flair that’s nice to hear on Broadway.
Other recruits engaged at a casting call are a middle-age black man, Noah (Andre de Shields), nicknamed Horse for reasons celebrated, on the edge of tastelessness (not to mention racist-ness), in “Big Black Man”; Ethan Girard (Romain Fruge), whose qualifications are strictly anatomical; and Harold Nichols (Marcus Neville), a paper-pusher at the mill with an expensive wife, Vicki (Emily Skinner).
The den mother of this crew of exotic dancers is their pianist Jeanette, a character unique to the stage version who is played by veteran actress Kathleen Freeman in an immensely appealing turn. Freeman has many of the best wisecracks added to the film’s supply by book author Terrence McNally, and her deadpan growl and memorable scowl are put to fine use in her role as the seen-it-all Jeanette. Her old-style showbiz number, less than inventively titled “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number” is the biggest crowdpleaser in a show amply stocked with them.
Other appealing segments are de Shields’ frenzied, fractured dance solo in “Big Black Man” and the first act finale, “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” in which this gang of gangly guys discovers that they can get those hips moving to music by conscripting their favorite basketball moves. Here Jerry Mitchell’s elsewhere minimal choreography gets to strut its athletic stuff.
The performers are all genial and talented, with Wilson, veteran of some recent duds (“Bright Lights, Big City,” “The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm”), getting a chance to shine in a more promising vehicle. Conlee gives a nicely understated turn as the chubby Dave. Aside from Freeman, the primary female roles go to a goofy Annie Golden as Dave’s wife, Georgie, and Skinner as the greedy but sweet Vicki.
What is lost in the move from screen to stage are nuances and idiosyncrasies that, in truth, made up a large part of the movie’s charm. These don’t naturally translate across the footlights, so the characters and their crises feel accordingly more broad and generic, despite the best efforts of the actors under Jack O’Brien’s smooth but bland direction. The touching inflections, surprising reactions and off-kilter humor that buoyed the film are necessarily replaced by more canned elements that can hit their marks within the rigid framework of a $7 million Broadway production.
John Arnone’s set, for example, strives to give the show a funky frame by using machine-tooled materials — corrugated steel and fencing painted in bright colors — to accentuate the show’s factory town milieu. But aside from an evocative backdrop of silhouetted smokestacks, it’s nonatmospheric, Broadway-standard, and even a little cheap looking.
Actually, lively as it is, the show feels a bit machine-tooled, as have prior screen-to-stage musicals. “The Full Monty” is by far the most accomplished of the lot (the special case of “The Lion King” excepted), but it’s hard to get excited about a trend that promises to bring Broadway only the fruits of accomplished translation, not original inspiration, musicals that give the audience what it has already consumed and approved, not something capable of delighting us more deeply, and for the first time.