Transposed from England to America--specifically, to working class Buffalo, New York--the story of The Full Monty concerns a bunch of ordinary, unemployed guys who decide, out of financial necessity, to become male strippers for a night. The leader of the gang, Jerry Lukowski (Patrick Wilson), needs a wad of cash real fast in order to pay child support and avoid losing visitation rights to his son. Though you won't be able to tell from the alphabetical cast list, Wilson is the show's star. Having previously done fine work in the failed Bright Lights, Big City and Fascinating Rhythm, he emerges in The Full Monty as a singer/actor who can command a Broadway stage with his rangy, versatile voice and considerable acting chops.
Wilson's co-star is John Ellison Conlee as Jerry's overweight best friend, Dave Bukatinksy. Conlee could well be the next John Goodman; he is charmingly natural on stage, tossing off Terrence McNally's one-liners with a dry wit that's entirely winning. And the rest of the major players create a strong supporting ensemble: Annie Golden is adorable as Conlee's loving wife, André De Shields is magic every time he dances in his role as the oldest of the amateur strippers, Jason Danieley is sweet as a repressed momma's boy, and Romain Frugé is funny as the group's apparent nutcase. In a featured role, Kathleen Freeman plays the guys' rehearsal pianist with old-time showbiz flair.
Of course, The Full Monty isn't just about stripping. Racial stereotypes are amusingly sent up by De Shields' character, whose nickname is "Horse." (He hates the nickname because of all the pressure it puts on him and, when it turns out that one of the white guys is super-endowed but plagued by shrinkage under duress, he is delighted that it's now the white man's burden.) Then there's a subplot concerning Harold (Marcus Neville), an upper-management member of the group who cannot tell his free-spending wife that he's been out of work for six months. His character and that of his wife, Vicki (Emily Skinner), bring two things to the broader story: They create a bond between the classes (the other would-be strippers are all essentially blue-collar folks), and they delve into the strains and pains--and the joys--of marriage. The show also takes a swipe at sexual stereotypes: Patrick Wilson's character begins his journey as something of a homophobe, but eventually changes his bigoted ways when love between two of his buddies comes to fruition in a tenderly handled scene in the second act.
In every significant category, this is a buff production. The book by Terrence McNally is occasionally contrived but much funnier than the original film script; the show brims with good-natured vulgarity. Meshing delightfully with the book are the music and lyrics by David Yazbek. At his best, Yazbek combines catchy melodies with everyday language and pop culture references that give his songs a clever timeliness, and the score effectively moves the plot along even in its lesser moments. The show's cleverest number is "Big-Ass Rock," a dark-comedy tune in which two characters offer to kill a third as an act of friendship. And though "Michael Jordan's Ball" really isn't a very good song, it leads to some of Jerry Mitchell's most inventive, playful choreography.
Jack O'Brien has directed The Full Monty with energy, yet you never feel that the actors are working hard--and that's a good thing. There is an almost effortless enthusiasm about the show. John Arnone's sets are part and parcel of that effortlessness, moving on and off the stage as easily as the wonderfully tacky clothes designed by Robert Morgan go on and off the actors. Tom Clark's sound design effectively creates the illusion of events taking place off stage, while Howell Binkley's lighting is, among other things, timed to perfection to obscure all six "monties" at show's end.