Review - The Full Monty: Who The Hell Is Margie Hart?

One of the unique and cherished aspects of the musical theatre is how the preceding plot and character development can allow a musical moment to achieve ethereal heights that establish a triumvirate of joyful feeling between audience, performer and character. Take, for example, Amalia Balash's dizzying high note at the end of "Vanilla Ice Cream," which is not just a showy moment for the actress playing the role, but a release of amazed emotions caused by a simple act of kindness. Or the wacky exuberance of the impromptu tango that follows Eliza Doolittle's mastery of the proper pronunciation of an Iberian precipitation phenomenon.

But perhaps Broadway's most unusual musical expression of uninhibited joy passed on from stage to house is the final moment of The Full Monty, when six non-traditionally shaped male strippers remove their final wisps of coverage and stand before the patrons fully frontally naked. (Yes, I know I just gave away the ending, but please... you don't have to be a Yale dramaturgy student to know this musical must end that way.) Even though a lighting trick keeps the moment at a PG-13 level (and I have a strong feeling that the moment would not be as effective if the audience was able to see everything) just the awareness that these fellows are standing there starkers, combined with Terrance MacNally's funny and romantic book and David Yazbek's kick-ass, jazz-infused score telling the story of love, desperation, bravery and personal change that brought them there, is an uplifting theatrical moment as magical as when the audience helps bring Tinkerbell back to life. (Oh dear, guess I gave away that one, too.)

The Paper Mill's very enjoyable new production of The Full Monty, mounted by the company's Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee, never strays very far from the standards set by the original 2000 Broadway production; a show that was famously overshadowed by The Producers when it came time to award the Tonys. John Arnone's industrial set has been adapted for the Millburn stage by Rob Bissinger, Randall Klein bases the costumes on Robert Morgan's Broadway designs, original cast member Denis Jones choreographs and the talented cast gives familiar interpretations of their roles. But that's not to say this is a musty old revival. This is exceptional material played earnestly and a damn fun night of grown-up musical comedy.

Based on the 1997 film's screenplay by Simon Beaufy, the musical's setting is shifted from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, New York but still concerns a group of steel workers left unemployed by massive layoffs. Jerry (Wayne Wilcox), the show's flawed but determined central character (nice work by the authors in keeping this guy sympathetic) is the divorced dad of young Nathan (Alex Maizus & Luke Marcus Rosen alternate), who lives with his mom. Unemployed for months and unwilling to take a job that he feels is beneath him, Jerry is way behind on child support and his ex-wife Pam (Kelly Sullivan), who has a perfectly good job with her company waiting for him if he'd only take it, has decided to withdraw his visitation rights unless he catches up. Looking to score a big payday, Jerry notices how Buffalo women happily shell out the bucks whenever a local nightclub holds their male stripper nights. And, assuming that those dancers are all a bunch of, as he puts it, fairies, he figures the ladies would be willing to pay out even more to see a bunch of "real men" like him. But after investing time and money to gather a group of chums to form the stripping ensemble "Hot Metal," ticket sales are abysmal, and don't pick up until Jerry announces that, unlike the professionals, his crew are willing to go The Fully Monty.

Wilcox is terrific in the non-traditional leading male role. His Jerry is scruffy, worn and angular with a strong "regular guy" singing voice. But this is an ensemble show with lots of interesting characters to cheer for. Jerry's big lug buddy Dave (the very funny and endearing Joe Coots), feels emasculated because his wife Georgie (Jenn Colella) has become the breadwinner, despite her attempts to be emotionally supportive. Their former supervisor, Harold (Michael Rupert), has been hiding his unemployment from his stuff-loving wife Vicki (Michele Ragusa) because he fears she'll leave him without his executive salary. Lonely Malcolm (Allen E. Read) has been spending most of his life taking care of his ailing mother and while he's grateful for the friendship Jerry and Dave offer, it's his new relationship with the likeable but thickheaded Ethan (Jason Babinsky) that brings him real happiness.

Then there's the elderly Noah, a/k/a "Horse" (Milton Craig Nealy), who was apparently quite a dancer in his day and uses the mystique of the "Big Black Man" (which also happens to be the name of his show-stopping solo) to earn a place on the line. With a deep soul-singing voice and funky moves that he pulls off in between bouts with stiff joints and dislocating hips, Nealy is just riotously funny.

While her role is a small (but meaty) supporting one, the reason why plenty of those bridge and tunnel tourists from Manhattan will be making the trip to Jersey is because Elaine Stritch is on hand to play Jeanette, the salty-tongued, hard-drinking rehearsal pianist. It's the kind of droll, wise-cracking role the 84-year-old Broadway trouper is famous for and she shines with her usual musical comedy moxie.

But the real star of The Full Monty is composer/lyricist Yazbek, whose breezy combination of jazz, showtune, funk and rock - perfectly matched with the blue collar cleverness of his words - provide a sterling score. There probably has never been a character-driven comedy song quite like "Big Ass Rock," getting laughs out of dark-humored male bonding. "Michael Jordan's Ball," a number where the boys learn to dance by utilizing basketball moves, snaps with the jaunty syncopation of a one-on-one match-up and "You Walk With Me," (beautifully sung by Read) is a quiet contemplation on love and support. Broadway rocker Colella gets to show her impressive chops leading the hard-driving "It's a Woman's World" and Ragusa, who is just hilarious throughout, nails the tricky comic rhyming of "Life With Harold."

Sure, the final moment of moment of The Full Monty will always be its main selling point (forgive me, Ms. Stritch) but the excellent Paper Mill production demonstrates what lovely, heartfelt and realistically humorous theatre the show has to offer before the final g-string is dropped.

Photo by Kevin Sprague: Wayne Wilcox and Luke Marcus Rosen

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