For a recent date night, I took my husband Joe out to see men strip down to their birthday suits.
No, we didn’t trek to Windsor for the evening. Instead, we’d traveled to Dexter, where the Encore Theatre was staging its closing night performance of “The Full Monty.” For Joe had been a huge fan of the original, Oscar-nominated 1997 British film comedy of the same name, so I thought he’d enjoy seeing Terrence McNally (book) and David Yazbeck’s (music and lyrics) stage musical adaptation, which earned 9 Tony Award nominations in 2001.
Though McNally and Yazbeck transplanted “Monty” from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, New York, the story’s basic premise remains intact. In a blue collar town that’s fallen on tough economic times, a group of depressed, unemployed steel workers watch as their wives and girlfriends flock to a Chippendales-style men’s revue at a club. One of the men, Jerry (Eric Parker) – who’s divorced, unable to make child support payments, but desperate to stay connected to his young son Nathan (Alejandro Cantu) – hatches the idea of a locally produced male strip show featuring “real men.”
Gradually, Jerry persuades other despairing men in town to be part of the show; but when he learns that ticket sales are slumping, he ups the ante by promising that unlike Chippendales dancers, his troupe – which calls itself Hot Metal – will get completely naked on stage.
Which means, of course, that the actors in the show have to summon up the courage to do the same, and what a terrific crew the Encore assembled for the task. For ultimately, “The Full Monty” lives and dies by the camaraderie established between the men, and Encore’s sharply funny, soulful and sweet ensemble knocks it out of the park.
Greg Bailey managed to convey the perfect blend of snarky and lovable as Dave Bukatinsky, whose rampant insecurities regarding his body and his joblessness cause him to pull away from his wife, Georgie (Thalia Schramm). Dan Morrison earned big laughs as buttoned-up, fussy ex-foreman Harold, who’s long hidden his job loss from adoring, shopaholic wife Vicki (played by Sarah Briggs, hysterical in her own right). And Parker anchors the show with impressive vocals and an easy, winning charm.
Rounding out Hot Metal is Jordan Harris (Horse), who has a ball performing “Big Black Man”; Matthew Pecek (Malcolm), who plays a suicidal night security man at the mill who lives with his mother; and Brendan Kelly (Ethan), who plays a man that comes to the Hot Metal audition with nothing to offer but, well, his physical endowment. Plus, an honorary member of the troupe – seen-it-all, straight-talking piano player Jeanette (played by the perfectly cast Gayle E. Martin) – just starts showing up at the auditions and rehearsals, and she quickly becomes an audience favorite.
Occasionally clunky double-casting problems popped up – why is Jerry’s buttoned-up, serious, moved-on ex-wife (Luciana Piazza) happily cha-cha-cha-ing at Harold and Vicki’s dance lesson? Oh, she’s someone else now – but otherwise, the production was masterfully co-directed by Thalia Schramm and Matthew Brennan; Brennan also designed the show’s choreography (the hilarious “Life with Harold” is the hands-down winner in that department, aided by Briggs’ brilliant, exaggerated delivery).
R. MacKenzie Lewis does great work as the show’s music director – the balance was terrific, and everything sounded great (tip of the hat, too, to sound designer Terry Williams); and Kristen Gibbin provides a fittingly dingy, industrial backdrop consisting of brick, wood, and a series of dirty windows. Tyler Chinn beautifully lit the scenes (and transitions) with an eye carefully trained on mood, and costume designer Sharon Larkey Urick captures the crumpled look and feel of people who have long been out-of-work, understanding that a shlubby daily wardrobe inevitably contributes to an ailing self-image.
In the end, the truly delightful “Monty” – my husband laughed harder than he has in months – adds another notch to Encore’s ongoing streak of consistently good productions. With a sold out run of “My Fair Lady” this past summer, and earlier successes with Sondheim’s “Assassins” and “Always, Patsy Cline,” the seven year old, Dexter-based theater seems to have hit its stride, artistically speaking, making it one to keep tabs close tabs on.
“The Full Monty” concluded its run on Saturday, October 22. Next up on the Encore’s roster is a family-friendly show for the holidays, “Mary Poppins.” See the website, theencoretheatre.org, for more details.