By Joseph Hurley
THE FULL MONTY, by Terrence McNally. At the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th St., NYC.
Among the primary reasons behind the runaway success of "The Full Monty," the warmly ingratiating new Broadway musical adapted from the 1997 British film hit of the same title, is the presence on the creative team of the Irish-American playwright Terrence McNally.
In its initial form, "The Full Monty" took place in Sheffield, a hard-pressed one-time steel-producing center in Northern England, a city that had suffered mass unemployment during the Margaret Thatcher years.
In the film, a group of laid-off laborers, faced with mounting bills and no prospects of gainful employment, take note of the success of a team of touring male strippers visiting their town, and decide to put on a one-time-only strip show of their own in order to pull themselves partway out of debt.
The movie worked because, among other things, the seriousness of the plight of the men was so real, as was the bleakness of the future they faced.
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McNally and his colleagues, director Jack O’Brien and debuting composer-lyricist David Yazbek, opted to "Americanize" the story and relocate it to Buffalo, N.Y., a city that has faced some serious economic problems of its own in recent years.
McNally, among other virtues, had the wisdom to intuit precisely where the inherent strengths of the movie lay, and to avoid tampering with them in his relocation. Certain changes had to be made, of course. For one, the fact that Buffalo is predominantly, on a blue-collar level, a Polish town, is clearly reflected in the musical’s use of such surnames as Lukowski and Bukatinsky, not to mention the presence in the script of a number of Polish jokes.
In both the film and the musical, there are six major male leading roles, designed along somewhat predictable lines. In the Broadway version Jerry Lukowski (Patrick Wilson) is a divorced dad threatened with the alienation of his son. Dave Bukatinsky (John Ellison Conlee) is an overweight man with a serious problem in the body image area. Harold Nichols (Marcus Neville) is an unemployed representative of middle management, afraid to inform his spendthrift wife (Emily Skinner) of the harsh realities of their financial situation.
Malcolm MacGregor (Jason Danieley) is single and still living with his controlling invalid mother. Ethan Girard (Romain Fruge) is a film buff given to attempts at recreating Donald O’Connor’s acrobatic movie stunts, dancing up walls, and so forth, often with dire results. Much as Ethan and Malcolm’s mutual discovery of an interest in each other may resemble an opportunistic accommodation to Broadway’s pansexual climate, it isn’t. They fell in love in the movie, too.
McNally’s major alteration in terms of the men of "The Full Monty" is the expanded participation of the tale’s black worker, here called Noah T. Simmons and nicknamed "Horse" for all too obvious reasons, and played to a fare thee well by Andre De Shields, to whom falls the closest thing Yazbek’s jaunty score has to a genuine show-stopper, a James Brown parody called "Big Black Man."
Another successful McNally contribution is the creation of an aged show business veteran named Jeanette Burmeister, a character not in the film, a rehearsal pianist hired by the boys to bring them up to stripping speed, and played in the musical with crowd-pleasing sardonicism by character actress Kathleen Freeman, herself nothing if not a seasoned veteran in terms of both movies and musicals.
While falling considerably short of becoming a genuinely classic show, "The Full Monty" is probably the best working-class musical since "The Pajama Game."
Basically, it is a clever, heartfelt variant on the eternal and unfailing story of the underdog who achieves victory against seemingly impossible odds. Formulaic as the basic yarn may be, normally jaded Broadway audiences are currently lapping "The Full Monty" up as though it were a concept of an overwhelming freshness and originality. Indeed, the heart of this very rewarding and richly American musical lies in the humanity and inherent dignity of the people whose story it tells.
Terrence McNally has won Tony Awards for the books he wrote for "Ragtime" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in, respectively, 1998 and 1993. It would be difficult to imagine anything good enough coming along this season to knock him out of the running for recognition for the excellent work he’s done on "The Full Monty."