The Full Monty: The Musical (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

It’s always fun to attend new productions of plays that I’ve seen and enjoyed when I can bring someone new to see them for the first time. The Full Monty: The Musical is a show I’ve always found enjoyable, and I was fortunate to have attended its closing performance on Broadway on a Sunday matinee in September 2002. From its national tour a year or so later to a spring 2014 production at Otterbein and then The Human Race Theatre Company’s production in Dayton last fall, Short North Stage’s The Full Monty: The Musical is now the fifth production of this show that I’ve seen. This time I brought my friend Bianca who had no knowledge of the musical or the film from which it was based. I enticed her with the promise of male nudity, but it was the humor and heart of the piece that kept her interested.

The Full Monty: The Musical is based on the 1997 surprise hit film about a group of unemployed steel mill workers putting on a strip show to raise money for their families as well as raise their spirits. Theatre legend Terrence McNally adapted the screenplay for the stage, adeptly transplanting the action from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, New York, with music and lyrics added by the criminally underrated David Yazbek, with “You Rule My World” and “You Walk With Me” the standouts from a consistently tuneful and appropriate score. While the play may have one too many manufactured obstacles at the end, The Full Monty: The Musical is very entertaining and, dare I say it, even moving in its depiction of men down on their luck banding together to prove to their families and themselves that they can rise above their current employment statuses and work together to accomplish a goal. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Director Edward Carignan deftly guides an energetic and jovial cast in this production, aided by a terrific set by Dick Block (who designed the same turntable set for The Human Race Theatre Company production in Dayton last fall and has adapted and expanded it here) and very clear and balanced sound designed by Kevin Rhodus. The sound for a musical is particularly important, and this production is the first to take advantage of Short North Stage’s new sound system; aside from a few blips here and there, voices are clear and the music (aided by music director Jeff Caldwell and conductor Jim Kucera) quite full-sounding without overpowering the vocal performances. Aside from Kieron Cindric (as the professional stripper Buddy) not being mic’d and sometimes being difficult to hear at the performance I attended, the overall aural presentation is solid, positioning Short North Stage to emerge as one of the best producers of musicals in the area.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Standouts in the cast are David Bryant Johnson as Jerry, the dad trying to raise money for child support; Linda Kinnison Roth as crotchety rehearsal pianist Jeanette; Ian Short as the stuffy Harold; Patrick Walters as the rather dim-witted but boyishly handsome Ethan Girard; and Sean Felder as Malcolm, the suicidal mamma’s boy. Evin Hoffman is also perfectly cast as the villain Teddy, Jerry’s ex-wife’s fiancée; you can almost feel his smirk at Jerry’s activities as soon as he steps on stage. Sam Vestey deserves an honorable mention in his small role as Reg; his audition scene is so free of inhibition and honest that it emerges as one of the most touching scenes in the play, a scene usually played for comedy. 

The only criticism I have of this production is that the scene changes are often quite slow, idling the engine while the set rotates with some added business being performed on the far left and right of the stage. The show runs a good fifteen minutes longer than I’m used to, but perhaps some of this timing will be improved throughout the run. It didn’t bother Bianca when I mentioned it to her, and it certainly didn’t seem to affect anyone’s enjoyment of the show judging by the applause and chatter I heard at the conclusion.  The tender scene between Mr. Walters and Mr. Felder when they confront their budding attraction may also lack some chemistry, but Mr. Felder’s performance of “You Walk With Me” is a major highlight.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

The Full Monty: The Musical was rather unfairly overshadowed by the monster hit The Producers during its Broadway run, so I’m pleased to see that it has found a life in regional and local theatres across the country. For a play about stripping, unemployment, and child support, The Full Monty: The Musical is diverting rather than depressing, and its message of acceptance hasn’t dated like its references to VCRs and Sony Trinitron television sets. Short North Stage’s production is to date the best musical I’ve seen produced locally this year, and it serves to make me more excited to see what comes next from this company.

***/ out of ****

The Full Monty: The Musical continues through to April 24th in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/469

The Visit (Lyceum Theatre – NYC)

I had just finished watching the 1964 film version of The Visit starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn a few hours prior to seeing John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Broadway musical adaptation with book by Terrance McNally. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that as both the film and musical are adaptations of the original 1956 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, and they surely have changes exclusive to each version. Maybe it influenced how I felt about the musical unfairly, I can’t say for sure.

I can honestly say that I greatly enjoyed the film, and it actually made me look forward to the musical even more. I have a few friends that swear by the show and score as it had been performed previously at the Signature Theatre. Not being familiar with that incarnation, I wonder if whatever captured their devotion is to be found in the version of the show currently playing at the Lyceum Theatre.

The basic story is the same in both the film and the musical: Claire Zachanassian (Chita Rivera) is returning to her financially-strapped hometown as a rich woman offering up a fortune to the people and the city on one condition – that her ex-lover, Anton Schell (Roger Rees), be killed. She more than has her reasons, and what is interesting in both the film and musical are how Anton’s friends and neighbors start off indignant but get closer and closer to acquiescence.

The musical takes place on a unit set representing what looks like a decrepit large train station with a ledge, broken glass panels, and pillars covered in ivy. It looks great and sure sets the mood. The staging is such that I would often be watching some character to the far right sing and out of the corner of my eye see Chita Rivera walking quietly along the ledge on the set to the far left. The show has style to be sure, but I wonder if the vaudevillian approach (familiar to a lot of Kander & Ebb’s work) was the proper way to tackle this story. Claire’s henchmen in the story have white kabuki makeup and bright yellow shoes and white Mickey Mouse-looking gloves, looking rather ridiculous next to her in her fur coat and the townspeople in their heavily stained and worn clothing. Any seriousness in the dialog or lyrics seem to be undone by some of the stylistic choices made here.

Even so, there are most definitely some songs of note. “I Walk Away” is a story song for Claire explaining how she got to be so rich that is terrifically delivered by Chita; “You, You, You” is a sensitive ballad for Claire and Anton as they reminisce about their youthful romance (as a young Claire and Anton embrace and dance). As the show went on, and the audience reaction (or non-reaction) at the performance I attended would bear this out, less seemed to happen in the story. It was as if the gears were going slower and slower, and the haphazard attempts at comedy landed with a thud. Chita and Roger Rees don’t just lack chemistry; there seems to be a kind of negative chemistry at play here, as their interactions come off as so forced and rote.

The musical is performed without an intermission, and I had expected it to run for around ninety minutes. It was closer to a hundred minutes according to my clock, but it felt like well over two hours. While watching the film I could see scenes and situations that would lend themselves well to musicalization, and there is a LOT of music in this show as is, but it felt like sometimes the wrong scenes were set to music. Chita Rivera got her rapturous applause, which she would’ve received had she decided to sing the dictionary, but the comments I overheard exiting the theatre let me know that I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. I feel like there IS a great, dark musical lurking in the material, but I didn’t see it come to fruition that day at the Lyceum.

** out of ****