London likes a party, and with the arrival of Broadway’s “The Full Monty,” it now has one on stage. The (multi-)million-dollar question, of course, was how Britain would take to an American song-and-dance reworking of a film that began on this side of the Atlantic. But as performed with roof-raising panache by its six American principals, the electrifying Jerrod Emick new among them, London’s “Full Monty” possesses the sort of ebullient high spirits to fend off all skeptics: Properly marketed, this show should leave its audience wanting to let go for some years to come. And coming at a time on the West End when the stagecraft surrounding new musicals seems all but forgotten, its Broadway know-how brings with it a double sense of bliss.
For all its brash, full-frontal appeal, Jack O’Brien’s production this time around seems more finely shaded — far less generically raucous — than the sentimental romp I caught in New York last spring. It’s as if O’Brien’s interim Broadway assignment, directing (exquisitely) Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love,” has softened an approach that previously found scant room for subtlety. In London, you still cheer the six reluctant Buffalo strippers as they shed their clothes en route to acquiring self-esteem. But the quiet moments now register just as powerfully as does the show’s Chippendales-style call to arms: This is a musical about dignity, and its Anglo-American ensemble does it proud.
Most of the leading men won’t be news, at least to followers of this musical Stateside, though it’s heartening to see how committed such gifted actors as John Ellison Conlee and Andre de Shields remain to the piece. Conlee’s grace under pressure has developed a highly refined poignancy, his Dave a man at odds with his wife, Georgie (Gina Murray, excellent), and with his own waistline, both of which get their share of David Yazbek’s alternately rousing and plaintive rock score. Playing the ailing and irascible McDonald’s employee Noah (aka Horse), who gets fired for not being “cheerful enough,” de Shields strikes the same giddy rapport with the audience that he does in his speeches direct to the Lord.
Jason Danieley, in terrific voice, is back as the suicidal mama’s boy, Malcolm, who ends up touchingly in a clinch with the antic Ethan (Romain Fruge), the Donald O’Connor wannabe whose efforts at bravura theatrics land him lying bruised but unbowed on the floor.
The new recruit — and an invaluable one — is Emick, a onetime Tony winner (“Damn Yankees”) who has never been seen to better advantage. Inheriting Robert Carlyle’s screen role as the leader of the bare-it-all brigade, the vocally strong Emick brings a welcome edge to the early sequences of Jerry’s gay-baiting machismo. Later, in the scenes with the young son Nathan (Alexander Green) whom he risks losing to that other world of employment and domestic comfort, he underplays for maximum emotional effect: His second-act “Breeze Off the River,” closing falsetto included, is a model of its kind, as is the way Emick soft-pedals Jerry’s 11th-hour conversion, which in other hands easily could turn cloying. (His short, swift corrective to Dave at learning of Malcolm and Ethan’s burgeoning love: “Good for them.”)
As before, one might wish for a Terrence McNally book that didn’t feel compelled to tidy up quite so many narrative complications (five by my reckoning) in a last-minute rush to put things right. But even then, one has Dora Bryan on hand as the most distinctive comic distraction of this or any musical of late. (What’s next for Bryan: Aunt Eller?) Playing the seen-it-all pianist Jeanette — the musical’s one real change from the source movie — the veteran English thesp displays a passing acquaintance with her lines and her accent — with everything, indeed, short of how to hold a stage. And that gift she delivers as instinctively as does a musical that has gained immeasurably — its colloquial title notwithstanding — by learning how to hold back.