In one of the best numbers in StageWorks Fresno’s rousing new production of “The Full Monty,” the six out-of-work (and, in varying degrees, out-of-shape) steelworkers at the center of the musical are finding it hard to get inspired for the Chippendales-style strip show they’ve agreed to put on for their friends, family, and the greater Buffalo., N.Y., area.
What gets them in sync and rhythm?
The mention of Michael Jordan.
Yes, that Michael Jordan. The famed basketball player is immortalized in the first-act finale. Coming in this late 1990s musical, at first it seems a stuffy and dated reference. As the actors on opening night whipped themselves into a wonderful choreographic frenzy in the song “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” inspired by the sports star’s effortless moves on the court, I found myself pondering: If this sweet and funny show endures for, say, 40 years, will audiences in the future be only vaguely aware of Jordan’s legacy, the same way kids today nod politely when their elders talk about such sports heroes as Babe Ruth?
But even if the Jordan reference will one day have to be footnoted in “The Full Monty” program, I’m guessing that other themes will remain forever timeless. Some people will always be better looking than others, and until a magic pill is invented that delivers a six-pack stomach and 10% body fat to anyone who wants it, folks will never stop fretting about not measuring up to unrealistic standards of physical fitness. Pretty much guaranteed, too, is the continuation of society’s double standard when it comes to gender and so-called attractiveness. (Women get old; men get distinguished.)
The theme in the show I’m guessing will be most pertinent in the future, however, doesn’t have to do with skin (of which there is quite a lot in this show, actually) or body image (lots to think about there, too) or even the old standbys of friendship (male bonding is explored in a sophisticated way) or romantic and parental love (also nicely handled).
I’m talking about self-worth of the individual.
In a time in which we hear more talk than ever about automation, downsizing, underemployment and the “gig economy,” this musical at its core is about a group of men who feel redundant and ignored. In the song “Scrap,” which opens the show with a chair-pounding energy, the unemployed men worry they’ve already passed their expiration dates. Sure, the money-making scheme they hatch gives the material a cheerful comic sheen. Who wouldn’t laugh watching a bunch of slightly shapeless guys strip? And it is funny — often uproariously so. But the more somber message is that when these guys strip down to practically nothing (and perhaps more), they’re going up against a phantom chiseled army of younger, healthier, smarter, richer and ruthlessly competitive adversaries.
The survival of the fittest thing can sometimes really suck.
Director Joel C. Abels delivers a sense of frolic and fun in his clever and nuanced staging of the show. But he also doesn’t neglect the show’s anti-establishment, underdog underpinnings in Terrence McNally’s book and David Yazbeck’s music and lyrics. It’s a potent and meaningful combination.
The narrative is anchored by Jerry Lukowski (a compelling James Schott), a 30-something divorced dad, and his best friend, Dave Bukatinsky (Jeffrey Lusk in an amiable performance), more than a few pounds overweight. Both of them are listless after losing their jobs at the steel mill. One night after a chance encounter with a Chippendales-style male dancer (a wry Christopher Dorado), Jerry comes up with his wacky plan to strip for money.
It’s one thing to see “The Full Monty” in a large proscenium theater where there’s a fair amount of distance between the actors and audience. In the small and cozy Dan Pessano Theatre at the Clovis North Educational Complex, the term “intimate” takes on a whole new meaning for this show. In some cases you’re sitting just a few feet from the actors. There’s no place for them to hide, either emotionally or physically.
Along with Jerry and Dave, we get to know (very well) the four other men who wind up stripping. Harold, a former boss at the steel mill, played with a feisty goodness by Chris Mangels, takes on the task of trying to teach the guys how to dance. (At one point Mangels rips off his belt so vehemently I was afraid he’d sprained something.) Horse (a funny and formidable LaRon Lee Hudson), an older black man who shows up for stripping auditions, gives a raucous and accomplished rendition of the song “Big Black Man.” Aaron Pierce gives a fresh and lanky portrayal of Ethan, who’s searching for something beyond his limited world.
Dominic Grijalva is a highlight as Malcolm, the shy young man whose near-suicide in the first part of the show sets a black-comedy tone. Grijalva’s hunched posture and tic-like mannerisms slowly transition to the self-assuredness of a confident dancer. Strong vocals, measured acting and a finely honed characterization all contribute to Grijalva’s memorable performance. Choreographer Josh Montgomery is the show’s other major standout, offering one number after another of stirring dance moves.
In the large and accomplished supporting ensemble, Meg Clark is terrific as Georgie, Dave’s sympathetic wife (even when the dialogue gets a little trite as she keeps calling him “Big Man”), and Julie Lucido has some nice moments as Vicki, Harold’s wife, who doesn’t realize her husband is out of a job.
On the creative-team side of things: Mangels did double duty as scenic designer, giving us a first-rate brick-and-corrugated-metal set that suggests Rust Belt decay. (I like that even the vintage light fixtures look as if they’ve seen better days.) Brooke Aiello’s costumes are another highlight. (What other show would require everything from formal funeral wear to bright red stripper jocks?) Jennifer Malatesta’s lighting design helps Abels make every clever use of the small black-box theater space that he can.
On opening night I experienced some of my familiar woe when it comes to productions with live music: balance problems. I lost nearly all the lyrics in “It’s a Woman’s World,” and Jeanette’s Showbiz Number,” sung by Tessa Cavaletto, lost a lot of its impact because of being overpowered by the band. I trust that will improve as the run continues.
There’s something about the show I’ve pretty much avoided mentioning until now: the whole idea of the “Full Monty,” that quaint Britishism describing a man stripping all the way down to his bare bits. In an age of everything goes on the internet, that concept might also feel a little dated these days. Will they take everything off or won’t they? I’ll let that remain as a surprise.
But what I found much more memorable is the connection and camaraderie between the six average guys strutting their stuff on stage. While an individual’s self-worth is an important theme of the show, “The Full Monty” reminds us that it can be a lot easier to navigate the turbulent waters of a stormy and changing world when you’re in a lifeboat with others.
“I’ve got friends,” an exuberant Malcolm sings, and for me, it’s the show’s standout lyric. To make strides in the future for the cause of human dignity, we’re going to have to stick together.
Going beyond the genital jokes: As StageWorks Fresno opens the local premiere of “The Full Monty,” its six steelworker strippers sit down to talk about body image, gender roles and the challenges of taking off their clothes in the intimate Dan Pessano Theatre
“The Full Monty,” runs through Aug. 6, Dan Pessano Theatre in the Clovis North Performing Arts Complex, 2770 E. International Ave. Runs through Aug. 6. $25, $22 students and seniors. A post-show cabaret will be held 10:30 p.m. Friday, July 28; tickets are $10.
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