Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2005

When the six bathrobe-clad leading men of the Theater Barn’s production of The Full Monty came out to take their curtain call, the audience as a body leapt to their feet cheering. Not this business where one or two people stand and then a couple more people decide that wouldn’t be a bad idea and then a few more and a few more while the rude types sneak to the exit to beat the crowd out of the parking lot – the whole bloody audience jumped up simultaneously.

The Full Monty is that kind of show. I can, and undoubtedly will, give you a laundry list of things that are wrong with this particular production, but in the end it doesn’t matter because Terrence McNally and David Yazbek have created a musical with so much heart and energy that you cannot fail to love it.

If you haven’t seen the 1997 British film of the same name (and I highly recommend that you do) I will give you a quick run down on the plot. A bunch of long-unemployed factory workers decide to put on a striptease act in order to raise some quick cash. The phrase “the full monty” means that they will go “all the way”, strip completely naked, and not just down to g-strings as professional strippers like the Chippendales do. In the course of preparing the act, they each learn a great deal about themselves, and the audience is brought to think long and hard about what makes people lovable, loved, and loving.

The film was set in a dying industrial city in Britain, and, although it featured a jazzy soundtrack that sold very well, was not a musical. This show sets the action in Buffalo, New York. Other than a complete lack of garden gnomes and a happy ending for Vicki and Harold, the plotlines are nearly identical.

The show lures you in with the titillation of seeing some guys take their clothes off. My greatest fear in the intimate confines of the Theater Barn, was that we would end up seeing a great deal more than we, or the actors, had bargained for, but aside from some not too shabby bare buttocks nothing shocking was unveiled. But what made that audience leap to their feet at the curtain call was certainly not the quality or quantity of male pulchritude on display, but the strong family values at the heart of this show.

Yes, I just told you that a show which features foul language, partial nudity, and endless references to the size and functions of the male genitalia has solid family values. The characters in this play, while not anyone’s ideal role models, are good, kind, decent, caring people just trying to get along in this world. Jerry Lukowski (Mike Bellotti) loves his son Nathan (Zachary Fenhoff) more than anything in the world and cooks up the whole striptease scheme to get the child support money he owes in order to continue joint custody. His ex-wife, Pam (Christina Marie Vivenzio), doesn’t want Jerry to lose custody, but she worries that he isn’t capable of being a good father now that he’s unemployed and understandably depressed. Jerry’s best friend Dave Bukatinsky (Ryan Dunkin) feels completely flattened by his inability to find work, and has withdrawn from his wife Georgie (Margaret Kelly) who loves him deeply and feels confused and hurt by his coldness. Former executive Harold Nichols (Ricky Merpi) adores his spendthrift wife Vicki (Laura Binstock) but fears she’ll leave him if she finds out he’s out of work and unable to provide her with the lavish lifestyle she dotes on. Lonely and geeky, Malcolm MacGregor (Sean Loutzenhiser) lives at home and cares for his elderly and ailing mother. We learn less about the other two strippers Ethan Girard (Tom Waltz) and Noah T. “Horse” Simmons (Damron Russell Armstrong), but they are both obviously kind, harmless men down on their luck like the others. We never see them, but Horse’s mother, aunt, and minister all turn out to see him strip at the end, indicating that he is a part of a loving and solid community and extended family.

In the end everyone is stronger and happier than they were at the start. The Butakinsky and Nichols marriages are repaired, Jerry is able to continue seeing Nathan, and Malcolm loses his mother but finds true love with Ethan. Horse and Jeanette Burmeister (Carol Charniga), the group’s rehearsal pianist who just shows up, piano and all, strike up a nice friendship based on lives spent in show business. The Full Monty is all about family and human dignity and love. The fact that the people who need and get those rewards are imperfect in many ways is only the truth of how life really is, as opposed to a whitewashed version of unattainable perfection.

So, I promised you a laundry list of complaints. Put succinctly, here’s what wrong with this production: the set is awful, the choreography nonexistent, and Dunkin gives a slipshod performance in the key role of Dave Butakinsky. Basically, this is a poor man’s Full Monty. It looks very amateur, which is a big disappointment given what Abe Phelps is capable of doing with the Theater Barn space. I know the steel mills of Buffalo, New York are not one of the beauty spots of this planet, but the set is completely battleship grey with no relief in tone or texture. Rolling set pieces don’t stop rolling when they should and everything is obviously cheaply made.

As the character of Keno (Keith Guthrie), the professional stripper, says “Anybody can take their clothes off. But to do it on stage, with hundreds and hundreds of people looking at you, yeah, that takes something.” One of the key things it takes is choreography, and this production is extremely weak in that department. In fact there isn’t even a choreographer credited, so I assume that director Igor Goldin did the choreography.

The other thing a successful strip tease takes is practice, practice, practice. I am fully aware that there is never enough time to rehearse in summer stock, but special care needs to be taken here, especially with the finale. If I were staging The Full Monty I would bring in a professional male stripper to work with my actors at least once. There must be tricks of the trade that an average person would never think of that make the process look easier than it is.

I was really disappointed in Dunkin, who was just delightful in Lucky Stiff a few weeks back. Dave Butakinsky ought to be the sentimental heart of this show, and Dunkin slips up in several key scenes, most fatally in his Act I duet You Rule My World when he fails to make it clear that Dave is singing about his weight problem and not his marriage. If the audience doesn’t understand that it is his belly and not his wife he wants to be rid of the Butakinsky plot line becomes sadly off-kilter.

Luckily Dunkin is teamed with the energetic Bellotti, who solidly anchors the show with a passionate performance. His Jerry may be a screw up, but his heart is always in the right place. As his son young Fenhoff is engaging and obviously having the time of his life. I hope he takes full advantage of this great opportunity to learn and grow as an actor.

I was blown away by Loutzenhiser’s beautiful tenor voice, and captivated by his adorably geeky portrayal of Malcolm. He and Waltz had me in tears with his rendition of the beautiful, beautiful number You Walk With Me at Malcolm’s mother’s funeral.

Armstrong is a stand-out as Horse. Playing much older than he actually is, Armstrong never for a moment stepped out of character. It is particularly difficult to dance like someone older and less vigorous than you actually are, and Armstrong pulled this trick off with ease, making his number Big Black Man one of the dancing highlights of the show. Elsewhere on the dance front, Merpi was supposed to be playing a man who is a competent ballroom dancer which he obviously wasn’t. And Waltz was supposed to be playing a klutz when he was obviously a talented and well trained dancer. It would have been impossible to cast the two men in the opposite roles because of their physical types, but it was a shame to see Waltz’s dance abilities wasted while Merpi flailed around in an unbelievable attempt to look like he knew what he was doing.

Thankfully the ladies are all delightful. Kelly has dark earth-mother good looks, and she is perfectly cast as the loyal and loving Georgie. The fact that Dave could resist a woman like that in his bed highlights the depths of his depression. Vivenzio gave a heart-wrenching portrait of a mother and caring ex-wife. Binstock was lovely as always as the mercenary Vicki. Unfortunately no one gave her any choreography for her big dance number Life With Harold.

Charniga nearly steals the show as the feisty and hilarious Jeanette. She also got the best costumes – I want that shimmery burgundy/gold jacket she was wearing in the second act! Overall, the costumes by Jacci Jaye were appropriately work-a-day and working class, with the exception, of course, of the guys red sequined g-strings!

Do they take it all off? Apparently so! I didn’t inquire whether any local ordinances prevented it, as they did in a few years back in Schenectady when the cast of the Broadway tour was forced to wear flesh colored g-strings at all times when they played Proctor’s. But of course the ultimate moment of the show, when the gentlemen raise their hats, is brilliantly backlit and then quickly blacked out so that you only see them in silhouette. Artistic director Michael Marotta claims to be confiscating flashlights and binoculars, so there is no hope of sneaking a peek, ladies!

Obviously, if some rough language and bare buttocks offend you, you should stay home. But even with the flaws in this production, The Full Monty is as funny, tuneful, and moving a piece of musical theatre as you are ever likely to see.

The Full Monty runs through September 4 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and thirty-five minutes with one intermission. Whether or not to bring children is a personal choice, but I would say that kids over 13 will enjoy this show as much as the grown-ups. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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