Season closer at the Paper Mill Playhouse is “The Full Monty,” the raunchy 2000 David Yazbek, Terrence McNally Broadway tuner inspired by the 1997 Brit pic. The New Jersey venue, famous for its family-friendly slate, has chosen a musical that might raise eyebrows with its bathroom humor. However, the show seems a lot less shocking these days, and the opening-night audience reacted to every suggestive gag with roars of laughter and cheers of approval.
Artistic director Mark S. Hoebee has staged the romp with considerable zest, and his game cast brings crisp studies of the unemployed Buffalo steelworkers who take a gamble to alleviate their financial situation by performing as male strippers. In an inspired bit of casting, the musical enlists Broadway vet Elaine Stritch as Jeanette Burmeister, a crusty piano accompanist invested with vaudevillian spirit.
Pivotal focus of the narrative is Jerry Lukowski (a fervent Wayne Wilcox). With his marriage dissolved and child-support payments owing, Jerry recruits chubby pal Dave (sensitively acted by Joe Coots) in a quick-cash scheme, proposing they undress on stage for a gaggle of lusty local dames.
Along the way the pair are joined by hapless, suicidal Malcolm (Allen E. Read), dance instructor Harold (Michael Rupert), Jason Babinsky as the athletic Ethan, who insists on attempting a somersault off the wall a la Donald O’Connor with disastrous results, and Milton Craig Nealy as Horse, whose “Big Black Man” number is a heady dancing mix of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Sammy Davis Jr. at full throttle.
Stritch arrives seated at the piano late in the first act to deliver some salty barbs and jaded pearls of wisdom. Her big moment is “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number,” a razzle-dazzle patter turn that not only brought the opening-night house cheering to its feet, but prompted the octogenarian to return for a reprise; insiders say this was Stritch’s first ever professional encore, much to the surprise of cast members and conductor.
The production’s only misstep is the funeral sequence of a minor character. As the band plays “Nearer My God to Thee” the giggling novice gentleman strippers add a touch of graveside hip-swinging accompaniment to Malcolm’s lament, and it’s a rather halting affair.
Denis Jones’ choreography otherwise is fresh and original, topped by a distinctive basketball ballet for the act one finale. Charlie Morrison’s lighting is effective, particularly in the blinding cover-up it provides for the strippers’ eponymous grand finale.