Though The Full Monty won a Tony Award in 2000 for best musical, it's by no means a great musical, not if great means something in which every element—music, lyrics and the book (the words between the songs)—coalesces.
David Yazbek wrote some snappy tunes and sharp, clever lyrics, but Terrence McNally's book is atrocious. It's long-winded, riddled with stereotypes and plagued by shamelessly maudlin attempts to ratchet up the dramatic stakes by adding everything from pointless funerals to displays of the sensitive sides of blue-collar factory workers by having them blubber like a gaggle of high-school chicks.
Yet this Hunger Artists version works. Credit that to a terrific cast graced with a handful of ringers and an ensemble that makes up in sass and enthusiasm what it may lack in polish and pizzazz. There's a palpable esprit de corps to Glendele Way-Agle's simple but potent direction that makes it difficult to not thoroughly invest in the story, even when that story's more heavy-handed elements sometimes lead to cringing.
Anyone familiar with the 1997 Academy Award-nominated film knows the plot: Unemployed steel workers in a dying industrial town (it's Buffalo, not Sheffield, England in the musical) desperately turn to stripping in order to earn some cash. But they're a long way from Chippendales—they're too fat, skinny, clumsy, suicidal, or just dreadfully untalented.
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And when faced with female derision for even considering the idea, they raise the ante: Peckers on display! It's effective marketing, but it forces a crotch-to-psyche encounter with the grandfather of all male insecurities, the one ingrained in the male ego since Adam took his first close gander at the horse.
But The Full Montyisn't really about men and their dicks; it's about sexuality and intimacy, the complexities of fatherhood and marriage, and the question of male identity in a time when women can match not only their income potential but also their sexism and trash-talking. While the answer doesn't lie in McNally's toothless book, the spirited, sympathetic portrayals of the six lovable losers amplify the muddled script with life, immediacy and genuine soul.
Jason Lythgoe and Mark Louis Palkoner are believable and impeccably witty in the main roles of lifelong friends in danger of losing far more than their jobs, and Ellis LaVere Davis, Jeremy Gable, James Grant and Garrett T. McDonald perfectly complete their stripping posse. Add a chorus of appropriately slinky women empowered and frustrated by men grappling with issues of masculinity, plus a solid three-piece band, and the result is a production that proves that though The Full Monty is best known as a tale of men afraid to show their penises, it's far more concerned with another blood-engorged organ of the anatomy: the heart.
The Full Monty at the Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803; www.hungerartists.com . Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Aug. 26. $18-$20.