The naked truth about “The Full Monty” is that it’s a structurally uneven show, mostly due to composer-lyricist David Yasbek, who creates a couple of hauntingly lovely, show-stopping ballads plus a couple of clever comedy romps but then relegates too many other tunes to that limbo of serviceable but forgettable.
What’s more, most of the good stuff doesn’t come until late in the first act or well into the second, resulting in a sluggish start to an otherwise smart and provocative tale about male-female role reversal and sexual objectification.
And this new production, directed by Rick Bumgardner at Wichita’s Forum Theatre, struggles to overcome those inherent limitations to find its initial footing and pacing but ultimately blossoms into a heartwarming, laugh-out-loud treat.
Opening night suffered some sound problems from errant body microphones. And the cast seemed a little tentative with some R-rated dialogue (although, interestingly, not with flashes of nudity). But as soon as the audience responded with laughs, the cast relaxed, and the show came to life.
Adapted and Americanized from the Oscar-winning British movie of the same name by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, this 2000 musical is a charming but somewhat titillating – and raunchy – tale of six downsized steel plant workers who turn to stripping a la Chippendales as a get-rich-quick scheme to support their families. Because they are ordinary guys rather than Hollywood hunks, their only draw is the promise to take it all off – the titular “full Monty.”
The ironic fun of this story is that the macho guys who used to think nothing of leeringly rating women’s physical assets now have to confront their own shortcomings. Women, the horrified guys discover in one song, can be just like men.
Stephen Hitchcock and Ted Woodward (yes, the KNSS 1330-AM radio guy) play Jerry and Dave, two longtime buddies who come up with the stripping scheme out of desperation. Hitchcock’s Jerry is a divorced dad so far behind on child support payments that he risks losing custody of his son, and Woodward’s Dave is embarrassed to be Mr. Mom at home while his wife brings home the bacon.
Jerry is sort of a scheming loser, but Hitchcock shows us his tender side as a devoted dad with his young son (spunky, irrepressible Thomas Higgins opening night, although Nate McManis will alternate with him in the role). Hitchcock tugs at our hearts with “Breeze Off the River,” a poignantly lovely paean to his son’s naive belief in him.
And Dave is a pudgy teddy bear, with Woodward exploiting his lovability by turning the ballad “You Rule My World” from a comic lament about his belly to a beautiful tribute to his long-suffering wife.
Joining the ringleaders on stage and trying hilariously hard to be sexy are Ted Dvorak as the cripplingly shy Malcolm, Jordon Snow as dance-loving free spirit Ethan, Huron Breaux as aging hipster “Horse” and Craig Richardson as persnickety former supervisor Harold. Their pathetic attempts to learn to bump and grind are often very funny, although the actors try a little too hard to be awful before they get it right.
One surprise – and a highlight – is that Dvorak’s milquetoast Malcolm opens his mouth at one point and out comes a robust operatic treatment to the ballad “You Walk With Me,” made even more astonishing when he’s joined in close harmony by Snow’s dippy Ethan.
All six also blend their voices marvelously in barbershop harmony for a comic choir number that’s ethereal – but with naughty words.
While the show belongs to the guys, Karla Burns gives solid comedic support as a brassy old vaudeville broad who plays rehearsal piano for them. Oddly, considering Burns’ Broadway background, her only song is a throwaway that doesn’t do justice to her voice.
Most of the music is recorded, arranged by Tim Raymond and performed by local musicians. But the strongest moments come when Raymond, live at a solo piano, accompanies the blockbuster ballads with remarkable flourishes, presence and sensitivity. It makes me wish Raymond accompanied the whole show that way.