Saturday, September 4, 2010
By Tom Wachunas
Burlesque, in its classic sense, was any form of theatrical or literary parody that treated trivial, inconsequential events or behaviors as profound, serious drama. By the time Vaudeville came around, a night at “The Burlesque” meant rowdy audiences howling at slapstick comedy skits interspersed with striptease acts. Low-brow entertainment at its cheekiest, but nonetheless brow-raising. By the 1980s, stripping as entertainment was no longer the strict purview of female performers, as the Chippendales male dance revues became a world-wide club phenomenon.
The Full Monty, originally a 1997 British film which then premiered as a Broadway comedy hit in 2001, opens at The Players Guild Theatre in Canton on September 10. The musical could be called, to a limited extent, a burlesque with male strippers. But these “dancers” aren’t of the chiseled, lithe Chippendales variety. These are six unemployed Buffalo steelworkers with troubled lives, and who are, alternately, too fat, too skinny, too bald, too old, too dorky, or too shy. And so on another level, if you’re among those who worship flawless, glowing skin and the iconic superficialities of “beautiful” physiques, you might regard this production as something of a grotesque.
But if there’s any real ugliness here, it’s surely in the characters’ dire circumstances, personal and collective, and how not just their livelihoods, but their dignity and self-esteem have been terribly damaged. The central character, Jerry Lukowski, played here with genuine warmth by Michael Laymon, is desperate to find enough money to maintain child support payments to his ex-wife, else he’ll lose shared custody of his beloved son. Inspired by the popularity of a Chippendales act at the local night club, he masterminds a plan to form a male stripper troupe with five other equally desperate companions, all victims of the steel plant closing. The plan is to do one show only and share a hefty paycheck. Only very late in the action do they determine that just cavorting about in their shiny red G-strings won’t sell out the show. So they promise ticket-buyers “the full Monty” (a peculiar British slang for “the whole ball of wax,” as we learn in the program notes from director Jonathan Tisevich).
Speaking of director Tisevich, he’s done something remarkable in terms of casting not only Laymon, but also his five compatriots: Don Jones as Harold, Brian Sharfenberg as Malcolm, Daryl Robinson as ‘Horse,’ Dave Lapp as Dave, and Greg Rininger as Ethan. All are eminently delightful as actors, comedic and otherwise. One particularly electric scene/song – “Big Ass Rock” - transpires when Jerry and Dave stop Malcolm from committing suicide. Sharfenberg’s portrayal of the timid Malcolm here, and later in his solo “You Walk With Me,” is a perfect mix of awkward self-consciousness and heartrending sincerity. Lapp and Jones deliver one of the evening’s more poignant moments in their duet, “You Rule My World,” as does Laymon with a love song to his sleeping son, Nathan (played by Jacob Spina), in “Breeze off the River.” Throughout the evening, Rininger is gut-splittingly funny in his unsuccessful attempts to perfect running UP a wall. And in his portrayal of the character Noah ‘Horse’ Simmons, auditioning for a spot in the stripper line with “Big Black Man,” Daryl Robinson is a riveting, comical whirlwind of goofy kitsch moves.
Strictly speaking, not one of these performers is a virtuoso singer. Each in his own way sings David Yazbek’s lyrics, both mischievous and tender, in a clipped, Randy Newman-ish fashion, even to the point where some moments are slightly off-key. Yet despite such shortfalls in technical finesse, it is precisely this kind of disarmingly raw, workman-like delivery that makes these characters so completely credible and endearing. Blue-collar chic, to be sure. We’ve all probably known folks like these, and in our current real-life season of national economic distress, their performances here drip with authentic urgency, even as raucous hilarity runs throughout.
In that regard, Melissa Brobeck, playing Harold’s wife Vicki, has an electrifying singing voice to go along with her uncanny and well-honed comedic sensibility. Kudos, too, to Teresa Houston for her schmoozy-boozy rendering of Jeanette, the troupe’s matronly and sardonic piano accompanist. Additionally, the seven-piece orchestra led by Steve Parsons provides as professional and sonorous a reading of a Broadway score as you’ll ever hear in these parts.
Some prudes and purists might balk at such ‘adult’ theatrics, or question the efficacy of its frickin’ language. But the lewdness and irreverence in this case aren’t tacked-on or superfluous sensationalism. What resonates most vigorously here is the story of love and commitment that binds and heals amid gritty turmoil. As Tisevich reminds us with the Latin motto in his program notes, “Aude aliquid dignum!” Dare something worthy!
So in the end, do they really do the Full Monty? Gee, let me string you along a bit further. The climax, triumphal and flashy, is dazzling.
Players Guild Theatre of Canton presents The Full Monty, opening Friday September 10 and running through September 26. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $22 for adults, $17 for those 17 and younger. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office or by calling (330) 453 – 7617, and are also available online 24 hours a day at www.playersguildtheatre.com
Photo courtesy Players Guild Theatre