Humor, grit and blue-collar blues add endearing touches to ‘The Full Monty’

September 21, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

The ‘Monty’ men, from left, Kevin High (as Dave Bukatinsky), Terence Kelley (‘Horse’), Troy Wageman (Ethan Girard), Michael Nicholas (Malcolm MacGregor) and Bob De Dea (Harold Nichols) begin their final scene from Village Theatre’s production of ‘The Full Monty.’ By Jay Koh/ Village Theatre

The clothes start to come off during the opening moments of “The Full Monty” at Village Theatre, prompting audience members to lean forward, exchange glances and wonder: Now?

No, not now. Maybe not ever.

“The Full Monty” has made a name — as a film and, later, as the stage musical here — for offering a fleeting glimpse of flesh. But, as the audience learns early on, “The Full Monty” is about a lot more than, well, the full monty.

The show about unemployed steelworkers struggling to gain a foothold in a ruined economy has swagger to spare and, more importantly, tenderness to temper the testosterone.

The ribald comedy serves as the raucous opener to the Village Theatre season. The choice may raise some eyebrows in Issaquah, but the musical has the humor, heart and grit to be accessible to casual theatergoers.

The average Joes at the center of the musical scheme to strip in order to regain the money and, ironically, the dignity lost amid unemployment.

The action has been shifted from the industrial England of the film to Buffalo, N.Y., circa 1992. The steel mill at the center of the blue-collar universe has gone bust, and the main characters tiptoe through a minefield of indignities: unemployment checks and minimum-wage jobs at the local mall.

The plot resonates in post-recession 2010 — even among white-collar theater audiences confronting shrunken retirement portfolios and frugal fatigue.

Dane Stokinger anchors “The Full Monty” as Jerry Lukowski, a not-quite-deadbeat-yet dad and the ringleader of the strippers. Stokinger brings brio and a believable, boy-next-door quality to the role.

Jerry decides to strip in order to scrape together fast cash for child support, or lose joint custody of son Nathan (Jack Holmes) to ex-wife Pam (Ashley FitzSimmons).

FitzSimmons is the foil, but not a shrew. Instead, she portrays Pam as a mama grizzly, a protective parent in a tough situation.

Kevin High, as the doughy Dave Bukatinsky, imbues charm and vulnerability into the role of a reluctant sidekick drafted to strip before a screaming audience. The catch: Dave is too self-conscious to even make love to wife Georgie (Kathy Henson Gehrig) and, as a result, their marriage has gone colder than a Buffalo winter.

The rest of the troupe includes Bob De Dea as former mill foreman Harold Nichols, Michael Nicholas as “pigeon-chested” Malcolm MacGregor, Troy Wageman as daft Ethan Girard and Terence Kelley as the weathered and arthritic Noah “Horse” T. Simmons. (The showstopper “Big Black Man” addresses questions about the nickname.)

The surprise standout in the ensemble cast is Ellen McClain as Jeanette Burmeister, the strippers’ ancient rehearsal pianist and a showbiz veteran in Carol Channing glasses. McClain almost walks off with the show in her orthopedic shoes.

The plot unfolds in PG-13-rated bursts of locker-room talk and ladies’ room banter.

The pop-inflected score, by multiple Tony Award nominee David Yazbek, is uneven at times, but the Village Theatre cast has the skill to buff and polish the rough parts.

Costumes indulge in early ’90s nostalgia. Think pleather, shoulder pads and Aqua Net for the ladies; slouchy denim and backwards baseball caps for the men. The touches add texture but do not, thankfully, reduce the characters to caricatures.

Bravo, too, for the miniscule details used to add authenticity to the Buffalo setting. The paper bags in a granny cart in a street scene bear the logo of Wegmans, a Northeastern grocer.

Most of the musical unfolds in the derelict steel mill. The brick-and-steel set has muscularity the men lack.

But the physiques matter little as “The Full Monty” crescendos to the climactic scene at a Buffalo nightclub. By then, the catcalls and wolf whistles emanate from the supporting characters on stage — and from the theater audience.

If you go
‘The Full Monty’
Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N.
Through Oct. 24
Show times vary
$20 – $60, $70 for Ladies Night ticket packages
392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org
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