Elaine Stritch, Joe Coots, Wayne Wilcox, and Allen E. Read
in The Full Monty
(© Kevin Sprague)
Elaine Stritch, Joe Coots, Wayne Wilcox, and Allen E. Read
in The Full Monty
(© Kevin Sprague)
The role of rehearsal pianist and showbiz veteran Jeanette Burmeister was never intended to be the main character of The Full Monty, David Yazbek and Terrence McNally's 2000 musical version of the hit film of the same title, now at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. But in the hands of Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, Jeannette is definitely front and center.

Naturally, it's not hard to see what attracted Stritch to the role, which is basically a mirror image of her own wisecracking and dry personality -- and she nails the script's humor with priceless perfection. (On press night, she also chose to do an unscripted encore, which added a few minutes to the show's running time, as did her penchant for milking her lines.)

Fortunately, Stritch is not the only attraction here. Mark S. Hoebee has directed an extremely lively production with an all-around great ensemble, including such top Broadway talents as Wayne Wilcox, Michael Rupert, Jenn Colella, Milton Craig Nealy, and Michele Ragusa. Another Broadway veteran, Denis Jones, provides fine choreography, especially for "Michael Jordan's Ball," where the men attempt to equate learning dance steps with that of a basketball play, and the strip show finale "Let It Go."

The show is set in Buffalo, New York, where the closure of a steel factory has caused the male protagonists to lose their jobs. In addition to economic insecurity, almost all of the men are also dealing with other forms of low-esteem and shame: feeling like an inadequate parent, obesity, closeted homosexuality and even the fear of having a small penis. But after witnessing a professional male stripping act, former foreman Jerry Lubowski (the admirably sincere Wilcox) -- who owes thousands of dollars in child support to his ex-wife and is threatened with losing joint custody of his son -- bands together with his pals (including Joe Coots, Jason Babinsky, and Allen E. Read) to present their own male strip show. But unlike the professionals, they will go "the full monty" and show full-frontal nudity.

Nealy, who previously played the role of Horse in the show's national tour, stops the show cold in his phenomenal number "Big Black Man" -- grinding, bumping and spinning with absolute aplomb. Ragusa, as the giddily materialistic housewife Vicki, bursts with comic energy and eagerly chews the scenery; Rupert is a bit low-key but mostly fine as Vicki's well-meaning and loving husband Harold; and Colella is very funny as the earthy Georgie Bukatinsky.

Perhaps it was kismet that led Paper Mill to produce The Full Monty this year, as the musical's theme of economic uncertainty is even more powerful now than it was in 2000. But no matter the time, it is truly a pleasure to indulge in this tale of a group of underdogs tackling joblessness with spirit and good humor.