By Richard Ades
How desperate would you need to be to go onstage and bare it all before a few hundred friends and strangers?
The men in The Full Monty are plenty desperate, having lost their jobs when the local steel mill closed down. Some are afraid they’re going to lose even more if they don’t find work soon.
Adapted by Terrence McNally from the 1997 film, the musical version of The Full Monty relocates the action from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, N.Y., and adds melodies and lyrics by David Yazbeck. But the basic situation remains the same.
For some of the characters, their very manhood feels threatened by the role reversals they’ve experienced since losing their jobs. After being the main breadwinners throughout their marriages, they now find themselves relying on their wives to bring home the paycheck.
The central protagonist, Jerry (David Bryant Johnson), has an even more basic worry. He’s separated from his wife (Jackie Comisar) and fears he’ll lose joint custody of his son (Kyle Klein II) if he doesn’t find a way to pay up on his child support.
For Jerry and the others, all of this adds up to more than enough reason to throw caution (and their clothes) to the wind by staging a striptease act that goes the Chippendales one better by climaxing in full frontal nudity.
Though the men’s emotional stress is well expressed in McNally’s script and Yazbeck’s catchy tunes, it doesn’t come across as well as it could in Short North Stage’s production. This is largely due to the central relationship between Jerry and his weight-obsessed friend, Dave (John McAvaney). Johnson’s Jerry is more laid back than one might expect for someone in his situation, while McAvaney plays Dave as a goofy sidekick.
Perhaps director/choreographer Edward Carignan decided to keep things light to find the laughs inherent in the characters’ situation, but “light” mostly comes off as simply “bland.” A bit more gritty reality is needed to sustain our interest in a tale that demands nearly three hours of our time.
On the other hand, little needs to be added in terms of music, movement or spectacle. Other than some songs and scenes that end in an awkwardly anticlimactic fashion, the production excels on all three fronts.
Johnson has a particularly nice voice, and the rest of the cast sings serviceably, at least, and often beautifully. Backing them up, music director Jeff Caldwell leads a band that is equally adept at the jazzy overture, the bluesy Big Black Man and the pretty You Rule My World.
Carignan’s choreography is fun and funny, particularly in a number (Michael Jordan’s Ball) that mimics basketball moves. Just as impressive is Dick Block’s set design, which features weathered interiors and exteriors that roll in and out of sight with dazzling efficiency.
Along with all its other strengths, the production boasts two supporting players who are comedic standouts: Linda Kinnison Roth as veteran rehearsal pianist Jeanette Burmeister and R. Lawrence Jenkins as would-be stripper Noah “Horse” T. Simmons.
Two additional supporting players make indelible impressions playing spouses. Gina Handy combines a healthy libido with loving patience as Dave’s wife, Georgie. And as Vicki, wife of laid-off efficiency expert Harold (Ian Short), Danielle Grays kicks out all the stops on the Latin-flavored number Life With Harold.
Finally, something needs to be said for Adam Zeek’s lighting, which allows the show to live up to its name without becoming excessively graphic. Thanks to split-second timing, the inevitable male nudity is glimpsed just long enough to assure us that Jerry and his Buffalo pals do, indeed give us the “full monty.”
Short North Stage will present The Full Monty through April 24 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.