The Full Monty , the new musical about various wee-wees, is currently lighting up Broadway. I guess I’ve seen some things in my time, but a musical about whether amateur male strippers will drop their G-strings to show us “the full monty” after almost three hours-at last! This is the moment . Will they, won’t they? Do it, sweethearts! Gettemoff! -is a show that’s some way off from Kiss Me, Kate .
The Full Monty is based on the 1997 hit movie of the same title that was set in poverty-stricken Sheffield (Joe Cocker country), and along with more or less everyone else, I liked the movie a lot. Its sentimental story about a group of tough, unemployed steel workers who strip for one night only to pay the credit card bills or raise enough dough for child support was touching and very funny, and its secret was its utterly unexpected, modest charm. We rooted for these North of England characters-who were very real, by the way, as real as the blighted landscape of Sheffield, the city of steel itself. Now cut to Broadway.
The book by Terrence McNally ( Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, Ragtime ) has been broadly transplanted to Buffalo. Broad is the word, though in a moment of linguistic sophistication there’s the line “We may be retired and living in Buffalo, which is probably an oxymoron.” Its source in A Chorus Line was better: “To commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant.” But the distinguished Mr. McNally and the usually sophisticated director Jack O’Brien have underlined every character, every performance, every lame joke, every cheap campy move, everything-in the name, I imagine, of popular appeal. Yet the original movie was already wildly popular.
Take the show’s quite embarrassing opening scene, in which an effeminate professional male stripper does a solo strip down to his spangled “G-string.” A plant in the audience has yelled out, “Welcome to girl’s night out! Who says Buffalo doesn’t rock?”
The blah pop rock is meant to kick it all up a notch. (Music and lyrics by David Yazbek in his Broadway debut.) But as the stripper rocks on for Buffalo, a cell phone rings onstage. Where can it be? The stripper is looking for it everywhere. Where can it be? It’s in his jockstrap.
End opening scene.
Ain’t life grand? But I’m afraid the tone of coarse witlessness has been set from the start. Why the male stripper is homosexual becomes clear later when he’s mocked by the macho blue collar workers for being a “fairy.” “I got a show to do,” he tells them, mincing in his cowboy costume. “This time I’m John Wayne-go figure!” But Mr. McNally’s point is that he’s really tougher than the straights and he’s sexier. A fight scene ensues: The gay stripper sure packs a punch. Then they ask him “how to be sexy.” Who cares either way? But the dramatist is anxious to explore the hackneyed gay-lib issue of “manliness” in the dubious arena of male strip nights, and for a while the musical is off on the tangential question, Can straights strip as well as gays?
The Full Monty gets back on track-but to where? Showbiz’s idea of working men and women has always been suspect. But everyone here is a caricature: the ever-loyal housewives and loudmouthed sluts; the lovable old pianist and showbiz pro who turns up to play the piano for the lads (and crack showbiz jokes); the phony relationship between the divorced dad and his young son. “I love you, you fuck,” says the son to the father.
It’s a pleasure to see André De Shields, the star of Ain’t Misbehavin ‘, on Broadway again. But look what this silky, great performer must put himself through playing a character named Horse (nudge-nudge).
We first meet him when he auditions to join the group of amateur strippers by showing them how he can dance. But everything in this show is exaggerated, milked and mugged. So Mr. De Shields’ Horse must enter literally as if he can scarcely walk-staggering in like a geriatric. Hence the line, “What’s the use of a big bundle if you need a walker to carry it around?” But we know it’s André De Shields, and we know he can dance . If anyone can rise above this lame material, it’s him. And so he surely does-raising the roof and bringing the show to the boil at last in a dubious James Brown knock-off number entitled “Big Black Man.” But when he’s rehearsing with the troupe later, he becomes a comic geriatric figure again who can’t dance a step.
Cheap laughs, mass appeal. Or so they seem to be insisting. Mr. De Shields must suffer further indignity in Act II when Horse confesses he’s worried about stripping. (The joke is therefore on the black man.) “What am I gonna do, Lord,” he panics. “It ain’t getting any bigger .” “So, you’re trying to tell me you’ve got a small dick, Horse?” says the salty old broad who’s the pianist. “We gave the world Buffalo wings,” goes another exultant line. “Now we’re gonna give ’em Buffalo wieners.” “What are you going to call yourselves-the Dancing Dicks? Bring your telescopes!” And so on. Broadway letting its hair down like this is about as attractive as a Friars Club roast or a karaoke outing on a Saturday night. But the original film wasn’t about dicks. It was about comic desperation; in its appealing essentials, it was about love.
The shoddy musical version makes every blatantly predictable choice. Mr. Yazbeck’s score is all-purpose pop-rock, his ballads a particular weakness. “I look at you / Standing there / You’re still a prince / You’re still the answer to a prayer …
“What is a man / Why does he bother / ‘Cause he’s a man / ‘Cause he’s a father …”
There’s an attempted replica of a suicide scene in the film, when one of the characters amusingly tries to asphyxiate himself in a car. Here, the car-designed by set designer John Arnone-is some kind of dinky cartoon version, like a covered golf cart. The character is still asphyxiated, but there’s no smoke! Mr. Arnone’s attempt at an industrial set looks dull, static and under-budgeted. It doesn’t move or propel the action forward in any way. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is more or less confined to the Act I closer, “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” that pays rousing tribute to the airborne skills of Michael Jordan. His slam dunks inspire the amateur strippers to take courage.
But then, in the dress rehearsal scene when the guys try out their first strip, the musical version turns their specially invited audience into senior citizens from a rest home. Geriatrics again-this time with walkers and wheelchairs. One of the old folks is a dummy, actually. The dummy’s making up the numbers. You’re not supposed to notice.
They’ve even botched the signature scene of the entire movie-when the guys unconsciously broke out into their strip dance while standing on the unemployment line. The scene now takes place during a funeral. Someone’s mum has died, and the following happens: The Lord’s Prayer; a suggestion of the strip dance; a mournful ballad (Sample lyric: “Is it the wind that I hear gently whispering?”); and the coming out of two gay members of the group as they hold hands, no doubt wondering what’s in the wind.
For what it’s worth, they don’t actually “do the full monty.” They promise to. They tease . They build up to the moment in a cheerleading crescendo to rival the World Series. But this is less The Full Monty , more the three-card monte. Now you see it, now you don’t. The show promises the world. It doesn’t deliver.