I was really looking forward to the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's production of The Full Monty, but that anticipation was nothing compared to how much I was looking forward to watching Friday's audience watch The Full Monty.
A mostly older, mostly conservative, mostly subscriber-based group, the theatre's opening-night patrons are a supportive lot, yet can also be the very definition of a tough crowd; if a show's not working - or, more specifically, not working for them - they'll let you know it. Circa '21's opening-night attendees are, of course, too polite to boo or hiss, but in general, they won't force laughter or applause for productions they don't care for, and they're also a wildly unpredictable bunch; I know opening-night patrons who walked out of the gospel musical Smoke on the Mountain at intermission because it was too churchy, and patrons who walked because it wasn't churchy enough.
So it was with almost delirious excitement that I attended The Full Monty, composer David Yazbek's and book writer Terrence McNally's magnificent musical comedy about unemployed steelworkers who decide to make some quick cash as blue-collar Chippendales. For a venue that cut the word "crap" from 2006's Grease, the choice to produce this particular show was risky, to say the least: Profanity! Nudity! Gay characters holding hands! Just how would Circa '21's regulars take all this? Would they eat it up, or would they finally break their long-standing pact against booing and hissing?
Well, booing and hissing never occurred. But impassioned applause, cheers, and laughs that sounded like extended shrieks certainly did. It isn't often (enough) that you attend Circa '21 and leave with the sort of high that's more akin to a rock-concert experience than a dinner-theatre one, and director/choreographer Jamal McDonald's The Full Monty features so many joyously entertaining musical and comedic sequences, and such spectacularly gifted performers, that you not only want to see it again, but want to immediately call a dozen friends and insist on their joining you. In retrospect, of course the opening-night clientele had a blast. The only prerequisite for enjoying this production, I'm guessing, is a pulse. (You'll likely know if the show is too risqué for you in its first five minutes, which offer a happily unapologetic striptease by the intimidatingly buff Dean Alcott, and the opening lyric "What I want? That's easy, asshole: I want a job.")
Although a few of McNally's harsher expletives and Yazbek's saltier lyrics have been deleted (and aren't much missed), it's apparent from the outset that punches won't be pulled here, and beginning with the opening "Scrap" number - in which the steelworkers reveal their frustration through the rhythmic slamming of folding chairs - this wonderfully well-sung Full Monty is rich with feeling and contrasting emotions. Despite a fondness for easy punchlines, one of the great thrills of McNally's script is that it doesn't shy away from such issues as male body-image, self-esteem, and embarrassment, yet has the wit to also make these issues funny, and fittingly, the production is blessed with performers as hilarious, and terrifically sincere, as they are fearless.
Composed of Don Denton, Dave Adamick, Nikkieli Demone *, Brad Hauskins, Hernando Umaña, and Vaughn Irving, the show's sextet of wannabe strippers forms the best type of comic ensemble: one wholly free of grandstanders. Each is given plenty of opportunities to shine - Demone nearly brings the house down with his glorious rendition of "Big Black Man" - but their portrayals are gracious and giving; they're clearly, and inspiringly, less concerned about dominating the spotlight than in making the others look good, which in turn makes them look good. [* For the remainder of the show's run, Demone's role will be portrayed by Troy Scarborough.] It's a big-hearted, hugely empathetic assemblage that McDonald has recruited, and the performance joys don't stop with The Full Monty's leads.
In a show that allows its women to be every bit as three-dimensionally complex (and giddily ridiculous) as its men, Kimberly Furness, Meg Kavanaugh, Jana K. Schreier, and Autumn O'Ryan deliver forceful, fully lived-in characters without ever stooping to stereotype. And the production is a great argument for filling secondary parts with first-rate actors; The Full Monty is fresh and alive, but better still - thanks to being so roundly well-cast - you always believe in it. (With the exception of debuting 12-year-old Pablo Dietrich Haake, the rest of Monty's cast - the sensational Erin Churchill (nee Dickerson), Tristan Layne Tapscott, Liz J. Millea, Eddie Staver III, Aurianna Angelique, and James Fairchild - have all been additionally excellent in previous, larger Circa '21 roles this season.)
I've dedicated little space here to the production's particulars, and that's by design; if I were to go on at length about Umaña's twirling happiness upon making a new pair of friends, or Dickerson's hysterically put-off reading of "What a bitch!", or the lyric brilliance of Yazbek's "You Rule My World" or "Big-Ass Rock" numbers, it'd be tempting to spoil all the show's magical surprises for you. Put simply, The Full Monty is a grand time at the theatre, and I applaud Circa '21 for producing it so beautifully, and the theatre's opening-night crowd for embracing it so thoroughly. It's altogether - and in-the-altogether - marvelous.
For tickets, call (309) 786-7733, extension 2.