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BWW Review: THE FULL MONTY at Gryphon Theatre Wellington

BWW Review: THE FULL MONTY at Gryphon Theatre Wellington

Reviewed by Lindsey Rusling
At Gryphon Theatre, Wellington until 8 June 2019

Director and Choreographer: Julie O'Brien

Musical Director: Thomas Nikora

Theatre Company: Kauri Theatre

A lot of cheek in more ways than one, "The Full Monty" is a contemporary musical based on the hugely successful 1997 British film of the same name. The story follows a group of redundant steel mill workers who plan to earn quick cash by copying the Chippendales with a one-off strip show where they literally bare all.

In 2001, Terrence McNally wrote the stage adaptation that included music and lyrics by David Yazbek and the action of the play was transferred from the original setting of Sheffield, UK to Buffalo, New York resulting in ten Tony Award nominations (unfortunately, overshadowed by the success of "The Producers") that year.

"The Full Monty" may seem to be marketed as a wild hen's night out but at its core it is a study of male ego, insecurity and depression. There are laugh-out-loud moments but the comedy comes mostly from the social commentary and sharp, British gallows humour that touches a chord with anyone who has ever felt overlooked, dismissed, humiliated or rejected. These are the men that Donald Trump appealed to with the promise of bringing back the industrial boom. They measure their masculinity by what they can provide and their lack of prospects (especially in the face of the capable working women in their lives) only exacerbate their feelings of failure.

The musical opens with a wonderful, professional-looking strip routine by Daniel Fraser-Haimoana whose dance background enables him to show off and warm up the already receptive audience and continues with the men at the mill being made redundant and singing about how this affects their self-worth "Scrap".

Jerry Lukowski (a swaggering Mark Stamper) sees an opportunity to make the money he needs to ensure visitation rights with his son and talks his chubby, comedic (and more likeable) best friend Dave Bukatinsky (an adorable and hilarious performance from Lox Dixon) into a one-off strip show featuring the "regular" guy.

Cue the search for "Hot Metal" and we are introduced to a number of quirky characters: Ethan, a well-endowed, gay, Donald O'Connor wannabe given a sensitive portrayal by Jake Elston, Harold Nichols, the stuffy, former foreman (played sympathetically by Wayne Roberts) who teaches the dance moves and brings dignity to some undignified situations. Bentley Stevenson gives a suitably nervy presentation of tragic Malcolm MacGregor, a suicidal and in-the-closet Mummy's boy who finds friends and confidence while Peter Quinn rounds out the group with a thoroughly entertaining turn as the funky, arthritic "Horse" - a charismatic and musically adept performance despite the fact that he is obviously not a "Big Black Man".

Although the male bonding is front and centre in this story, the women are the backbone of "The Full Monty". The female chorus performs with intensity and solid vocals and, although there were some pitch problems in "You Rule My World Reprise', Bex Ward as Vicki who loves the finer things but loves her husband more and Paulette McIndoe as brassy Georgie do a good job at energising their scenes.

Jane Keller as Jeanette Burmeister, a former vaudevillian, was a master class in comedic timing. Her vitality and meticulous characterisation meant she stole almost every scene she was in with hilarious and straight-talking one liners which the audience thoroughly enjoyed.

It is the scenes and musical numbers with that sense of camaraderie and mischief that are the most entertaining. From the hilarity in "Big Ass Rock' to the effective slow-motion basketball in "Michael Jordan's Ball" and the juxtaposition of "The Goods" where the men become self-conscious in the face of female judgement.

Counterbalancing these playful and high energy elements, are heart-warming and human moments such as "Breeze Off the River" where Jerry, with a beautiful falsetto, sweetly shows the audience his introspective side and emotionally expresses a father's love for his son (a compelling James Catherwood) and "You Walk With Me" where the bereaved Malcolm and his lover, Ethan declare their passion during the funeral of Malcolm's mother.

Kauri Theatre are still a young group with this being their second production and the values in terms of set, lighting, sound and music are suitable but relatively unsophisticated (a special mention - with an audible gasp from the audience - for the car). Julie O'Brien has shrewdly directed her cast and crew to create smooth and straightforward transitions that enable the action to flow efficiently.

The musicians were talented players but the production would have benefitted from increased instrumentation and amplification to create a more holistic, surround-sound to support the performers who may not be used to projecting their voices and ensure that they hear the music and keep to the notes for those difficult and "clashy" harmonies. This was particularly noticeable when Jeanette started to "play" the piano and the music was coming from the other side of the stage.

There are so many themes in the musical that are relevant in the world today - sexuality, body image, mental health, poverty and unemployment and I feel that New Zealand men (like the British) are not as body-confident as their American counterparts which adds a believability, warmth and empathy to the characters in this production. At the end, we discover that it is commitment to friends, devotion to family and providing unconditional love and support that give these people (and the audience) hope for the future.

It is apparent that Julie O'Brien and company have worked hard to create a bonded team and it is this warmth, companionship and solidarity that pervades this production and generates an emotional relationship between the characters and the audience. It takes courage to pull off the final scene (particularly the one I saw on opening night) and, without revealing the ending, I take my hat off to all involved for an unforgettable night out.

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