Will they or won't they? 1997's The Full Monty teased movie audiences with six unemployed British steelworkers debating whether to "get their kit off" in front of screaming strangers. The quirky tale did so well that the film's producer made the story into a Broadway musical, set in Buffalo, New York, instead of northern England. In terms of storyline it's a faithful translation of Simon Beaufoy's screenplay, down to the last red breakaway thong. Audiences coming up the stairs of the Dean Lesher for the current Contra Costa Musical Theatre production are carefully steered left for the musical biography of John Denver and right for The Full Monty. To the left: country roads. To the right: bad language, songs about masturbation and porn, and possible penis-waggling. With lyrics like Swinging your cojones/You'll show them what testosterone is, Oklahoma this ain't.
Truthfully, the film is one of my favorites, even if it's mawkish in places. Those places are even more obvious onstage, with a Terrence McNally book that has all the grace and subtlety of a sledgehammer. Many of the things that made the movie fun -- the dancers getting their groove on in the unemployment line, the battling garden gnomes -- are gone, replaced with bluff and exposition. Too much exposition, especially in the pivotal bathroom scene where Dave and Jerry are hiding in one of the stalls while Dave's wife (a wonderfully raunchy Julia Etzel) is complaining that she's not getting any and Jerry's ex-wife Pam is talking about the end of her marriage. It's weird to see something so leaden from veteran McNally, who adapted Ragtime for the musical stage, and also wrote Love! Valor! Compassion! and Master Class. But all of the goofy pleasure of the beginning just evaporates in that grim bathroom, and the brave cast has to struggle to bring it back.
While the dialogue limps, the lyrics and score hustle in pop songwriter David Yazbek's first musical, from the cheerful, jazzy overture to the "Rawhide"-flavored "Scrap." Yazbek was trying for something more humorous than the usual musical fare, and the proof is in the feel-good "Big Ass Rock," where Dave and Jerry cheer up a suicidal former co-worker by detailing all the ways they could kill him. The duet "You Rule My World" comes in a close second, and gets used two different ways: humorously the first time by two men, sweetly and seriously the second time by two women.
Much has been made of the decision to strengthen the female roles, but how the addition of Jeannette and Estelle helps anything is a mystery. Estelle is just irritating, a one-dimensional bimbo tossed in to create more tension between Jerry and Pam, but pianist Jeannette, no matter how entertainingly played, is a crime against that segment of humanity hoping for this gritty story to make sense. "Where did she come from?" one character asks. "She just showed up off the street, she and the piano," responds another. Jeannette tends to go off about the glory days when she played with Sinatra or Stan Kenton. It's self-consciously theatrical and distractingly surreal. Not to mention that having a woman in the rehearsal scenes dilutes the humor of watching men try to figure out how to play sexy with only each other to ask.
The increased female presence does work when the men are taking their clothes off in front of each other for the first time. The stage version makes this into something of a dream sequence, with the women harassing the men for not having "The Goods" (He's pigeonchested/He's fat/He's got pimples on his ass). It's the first time we see the whole group at once, and it bounces between the vicious women and a bright, unexpected barbershop quartet of frightened men.
One clunky character change is turning Noah "Horse" Simmons into a cariacture. Why does he need to be so menacing? Because he's black? Here instead of being a laid-off millworker like the others, Horse has been fired by McDonald's for not being cheerful enough. Combined with talk about black men being every woman's fantasy, the song "Big Black Man," and moments like Horse rhapsodizing about big-assed women and calling for God's help, the show crosses the line between satirically exposing our prejudices and yielding to them.
The same thing happens to a lesser extent in playing up the gay subplot, where, surprise surprise, gayness is signified by a love of musicals. We can see how Ethan and Malcolm could be attracted to each other -- we don't need them crowing about how much they both love The Sound of Music to get the point. Of course, it might help in this case if the actors manufactured a little more heat, but their graveside duet "I Will Walk with You" is one of the two nicest duets in the whole production.
The acting is enthusiastic, if uneven. Marty Newton is the most natural as Dave, and Todd Carver is suitably blokey as Jerry. He's one of the few who can consistently push the lyrics up over the orchestra, but his tone is unremarkable until he gets to "Breeze Off the River," unleashing a surprising and durable falsetto. John Brown has the sweetest singing voice (and a very expressive face) as dim Malcolm. The dancing, meanwhile, is very "manly," with lots of kicking and fist-pumping, and the actors do it well.
The film's core themes are intact. Men are forced to think about how they look at and treat women and each other. People find that they can sacrifice for love and still come out ahead. And a imperfect body housing a lively spirit is much more interesting than a perfect one without. There's a lot to work with, and the musical garnered ten Tony nominations, ran for two solid years, and spun off a tour. So it's a crowd-pleaser, and CCMT's production is fun, but don't expect the sly charm of the original.
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