By Tom Wachunas
ecdysiast (n.) - H.L. Mencken's invented proper word for "strip-tease artist," 1940, from Greek ekdysis "a stripping or casting off"
The nerve. The verve. The ghastly giggles and writhing wiggles. The Players Guild Theatre production of The Full Monty is a sizzling, sassy foray into the ecdysiastic fantastic.
Jonathan Tisevich directs this American musical adaptation (which opened on Broadway in 2000) of the eponymous British film from 1997. He’s more than casually familiar with the material, as he was in the musical’s national touring company in 2003, and later directed a notably successful production in 2010 on the Players Guild’s airy mainstage. This time around, the action unfolds in the much tighter surrounds of the Guild’s downstairs arena theater, effectively injecting a very bold and daring story with even more rip-roaring, in-your-face intensity.
Not only directing a thoroughly electrifying group of 18 performers, Tisevich is a cast member himself, playing a key role. Fittingly enough, it’s the character of Jerry Lukowski, who in turn directs a raucous show within the show. He does so with infectious energy, infused with a physical panache and fierce emotionality mirrored by the entire cast.
Here is the story of six steelworkers in Buffalo, New York, whose already vexed personal lives are further, uhm… upended when they become unemployed. Jerry is desperate to find enough money for the child support payments to his ex-wife, Pam (played by Olivia Wimberly), else he’ll lose shared custody of his beloved son, Nathan (Joey Anderson). Intrigued by the popularity of a Chippendales act at the local night club, he masterminds a plan to form an unlikely male stripper troupe with his five equally desperate cohorts.
Brian O’Jackson plays Dave, a large guy feeling helpless to revive his troubled marriage to Georgie (Ashley Berman). Harold, played by Jay Sigler, is a factory manager afraid to tell his wife, Vicki (Meg Hopp) he can’t afford her lifestyle because he’s been fired. Kyle Burnett is Malcolm, a friendless introvert living with his mother. Ethan, played by Allen Cruz, is irrepressibly outgoing; and ‘Horse’, played by Darryl Robinson, longs for his younger days as a ladies’ man. The troupe’s plan is to do one show only and share a hefty paycheck. But very late in their rehearsals, they realize that simply cavorting about in their shiny red G-strings won’t fill the house. So they promise all those would-be ticket buyers “the full Monty” (British slang for going all the way, “the whole ball of wax”).
In coming to grips with their dire circumstances, all of these male characters share honest anger and exasperation. It can be downright painful to hear their insecurities about body image, dignity, their emotional and psychological vulnerabilities, their ill-founded pride or doubt about what makes a man…manly. Baring the body becomes a prickly metaphor for baring the soul, a difficult drop-your–pants-drop-your-defenses proposition.
When they, as well as the women in the cast sing, it’s a disarmingly expressive rawness that takes over, making all these individuals so utterly credible. They’re completely genuine and endearing, whether navigating through crisis or romping in unfettered silliness. Though some might reckon these proceedings as some sort of sensationalistic assault on proper morality, I think the overarching thrust of the narrative is about the love and commitment that binds and heals amidst gritty turmoil.
This salty tale is generously peppered with songs (music and lyrics by David Yazbek), some tender and poignant, as in the heartrending “Breeze Off the River,” when Jerry sings to his sleeping son; and some rowdy to the point of whipping the audience into a frenzy of piercing shrieks and whistles, as in “Big Black Man,” when Darryl Robinson, reprising his role of Horse from the 2010 production, auditions for a spot in the stripper line by delivering a whirlwind of comically smooth moves. Teresa Houston, also reprising her 2010 role, brings gut-splitting gusto to her rendering of Jeanette, the schmoozy, sardonic, seen-it-all show biz piano accompanist during the troupe’s rehearsals.
All of the music – a crackling mix of contemporary pop, rock and R&B – is driven along by the excellent live offstage orchestra led by Steve Parsons. And the madcap choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers is a narrative unto itself. It’s a deft sort of protracted morphing that we see, from the hilariously wonky, bump-and-grind stomping of less-than-ideal physiques into the confident, steelyard swagger of blue collar chic. When the promised big finale does arrive, a blinding flash of light signals that this troupe’s collective cup, as it were, runneth over.
The Full Monty / THROUGH SEPTEMBER 2, 2018, at Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional show on Sept. 2 at 8 p.m.)
TICKETS: $32 adults, $29 seniors, at www.PlayersGuildTheatre.com and 330-453-7617.
PLAYERS GUILD PHOTO (left to right): Brian O’Jackson, Jon Tisevich, Daryl Robinson, Allen Cruz (seated), Kyle Burnett (standing), Jay Sigler (seated)