Friday, October 23, 2009

The Full Monty (The SOB Review)

The Full Monty (The SOB Review) - McKnight Theatre, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, St. Paul, Minnesota

**** (out of ****)

If you live in the Twin Cities, I have just two words for you:

"Drop everything."

Sure, go ahead and drop trou and all, but do what you must to see The Full Monty now playing at St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. In one of those rarest of rarities, Theater Latté­ Da's excellent and thoroughly enjoyable production is actually much better than the Broadway original.

Sure there was a relatively mild recession going on when I first saw The Full Monty on Broadway nine years ago. With the ravages much more isolated to hard-hit rust-belt cities like Buffalo, the show lacked a certain relevance. It didn't help that Jack O'Brien's direction lacked a desperately needed edge, exacerbated by the incongruity in Howell Binkley's full-tilt, lit-up "Full Monty" sign at the close of the show.

Fast forward nearly nine years and the economic pain is all around us (with the possible exception of Broadway itself). The truth is, we all now know people like those depicted in The Full Monty. How depressing, right?

As the worst recession since the Great Depression has too many of us worrying about whether we're next, you wouldn't think a show about desperately unemployed factory workers daring to take it all off just to earn a quick $50,000 would resonate or thrill. Yet under Peter Rothstein's exceptional, confident direction, Terrence McNally's book and David Yazbek's underrated score become even more salient, all the more gripping and certainly more entertaining today.

Rothstein's direction is a marvel unto itself. In what is his best production yet, he strips The Full Monty down to its grittiest, barest essentials and dresses it up with one of the best ensembles I've seen anywhere this year. Led by Joshua James Campbell, who's perfect as the down-and-out father Jerry Lukowski, the stellar cast shines just fine on its own, thank you, without any fancy, unnecessary lighting.

Veteran Twin Cities actress Wendy Lehr is a veritable laugh machine unto herself as the wisecracking Jeanette Burmeister, who assists the unlikely stripping quintet find its legs. Clearly having the time of her life, Lehr practically steals every scene she's in.

Additionally, Reggie Phoenix scores big as Noah "Horse" Simmons, Zach Curtis is a big ol' fat delight as Dave Bukatinsky, and as Malcolm MacGregor, Randy Schmeling once again delivers a virtuoso performance you'd expect to see on a Broadway stage (in fact, this entire production is worthy of the Great White Way). Schmeling's heartfelt, nuanced turn will leave a lump in your throat and tear in your eye.

So again, if you're in Minneapolis, St. Paul or environs, shake your money-maker over the Ordway and catch this sexy, fun and uplifting Full Monty before it takes off for good on November 8.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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