Theater review: The Full Monty at Asheville Community Theatre
The Full Monty, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Terrence McNally, at Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St., Asheville. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 1-24 (no show June 7). Tickets at AshevilleTheatre.org.
When you watch six ordinary men trying to work up the nerve to take their clothes off for a strip show in The Full Monty on the stage of Asheville Community Theatre, you know you're getting the real thing: These are six ordinary men from in and around Asheville, dramatizing, more or less, the past several weeks of their lives, when they worked up the nerve and learned the steps necessary to play guys working up their nerve and learning the steps — and so on. Sure, some of these guys have impressive theater credentials, but they're not jaded Broadway hoofers or movie stars. They're our neighbors.
That gives The Full Monty a special something that you'll never get with, say, The Phantom of the Opera: a down-to-earth quality that most Broadway musicals work to avoid.
Of course, it's also got a busload of great musical numbers, from the touching to the rollicking, all leading up to the strip show finale. The realism is in the characters, the sentiment and the themes. There's still plenty of fantasy in the production numbers.
It's appropriate that Monty comes on the heels, so to speak, of 9 to 5: The Musical at ACT. While the Dolly Parton musical was an exaggerated parable about women in the workplace, The Full Monty is a sweet and grounded story about men in the unemployment line. Adapted from the groundbreaking 1997 British film comedy of the same name, The Full Monty onstage is reconceived as a quintessentially American story, set in Buffalo, New York, immediately after the local steel mill has shut down.
The main character is Jerry (Corey Link), a divorced dad for whom unemployment means falling behind on child support and the risk of losing joint custody of his son Nathan (Evan Oldenburg). Inspired by a male strip show brought to town by the wife of his best buddy, Dave (Michael Crosa), Jerry cooks up a plan for a one-night-only strip show of local amateurs who will one-up the professionals by going "the full Monty" — full frontal nudity.
The musical then follows Jerry and Dave as they scheme, recruit four more guys for the show and start a bumpy series of rehearsals. The stage show starts strong with the ensemble number "Scrap," in which the unemployed men of Buffalo express their frustrations. The song introduces most of the key male performers and is also a good introduction to the creative working-man choreography of Jacob Walas, a familiar dancing powerhouse at ACT working here behind the scenes. "Scrap" puts to full use the fine, solid, multi-leveled steel mill set by Jill Summers, both gritty and symbolic, with the terrific six-person band (led by musical director Rob Blackwell) housed in a small alcove upstage with a garage door that lets them be seen or invisible, as appropriate to the moment.
The first act also brings "Big Ass Rock," a hilarious song expressing friendship as a willingness to assist a pal's suicide. The despairing fellow is Malcolm (Andy Thompson), the abandoned mill's night security guard, who still lives with his mother. The need to recruit more "strippers" and a choreographer brings in Harold (Mark Jones), a mill manager who hasn't yet told his wife that he's unemployed; the energetic and optimistic Ethan (Nick Biggs); and the soft-spoken Horse (Elijah York), who introduces himself with the crowd-pleasing number "Big Black Man."
On opening night, the first act had some slack moments that bared the thinness of the musical's book by esteemed playwright Terrence McNally. It's got some clever lines, and the characters are drawn well enough, but you get the impression that McNally, a well-off gay New Yorker, might not be so well in tune with barely-scraping-by steel workers in Buffalo (even if they may not all be straight). The dialogue is functional but neither inspired nor inspiring, so the quicker each scene leads up to the next musical number, the better.
By contrast, the first act finale, "Michael Jordan's Ball," is both inspired and inspiring, with the guys miming basketball tricks in the midst of a complicated dance. It shows off the talents of the cast, the choreographer and director Jerry Crouch in a sustained and entertaining volley of song and steps that nicely sets up the second act.
The finely voiced Link, as Jerry, may be the main character (he has a nice solo with "Breeze Off the River"), but The Full Monty is an ensemble show, and all the leads embrace their characters with skill and enthusiasm. Crosa is lovable and sympathetic as the (slightly) overweight Dave, at one point singing a love song to his belly ("You Rule My World") that in this production is curiously redirected to his wife (the feisty Cassie Marcelo). Thompson is funny as Malcolm, capturing well the one character with a real growth arc and a tender love duet ("You Walk With Me"). ACT newcomer Biggs is quite a find; as Ethan he has little more to do than play the bubbly cheerleader, but shows he can be a live wire of which we'll hope to see more. Ditto Asa Gardiner, in the supporting role of Keno, a professional stripper who offers some advice (and some early digs) to the guys.
ACT regular Jones is one of this production's rocks, reliably stalwart as middle manager Harold, with a wife he adores (Pat Birnbaum). They nicely share Dave's "You Rule My World," and Birnbaum ably takes the lead for the comic number "Life With Harold." York is excellent in "Big Black Man" but Horse is the one "stripper" without much of a story line in the second act. York nevertheless remains a strong presence through the finale.
Also earning a shout-out is Oldenburg, a rising seventh grader at A.C. Reynolds Middle School who takes on the substantial role of Jerry's beloved son Evan with gusto. He's a pro already, and just as fun in several musical numbers as his elders.
The women of The Full Monty get a couple entertaining ensemble numbers — "It's a Woman's World" and, with the men, "The Goods." The standout, by the show's design and on ACT's stage, is Missy Stone as the men's rehearsal pianist, Jeanette. It's a showy role that Stone has fun with but doesn't overplay. Her big number, "Jeanette's Showbiz Number," opens the second act with a lot of zing, and her many quips and asides (one of the book's strengths) keep the audience primed between songs during the run-up to the finale in the second act.
The big finish, "Let It Go" (written long before Frozen), is well worth the wait, and both Crouch and the cast are clearly having a great time with it, right up to "the full Monty." I'll say no more about it, since you should see it for yourself.
(Photos by by Studio Misha Photography/Courtesy of Asheville Community Theatre)