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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

The Full Monty
Mesa Encore Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of My Fair Lady in Concert, The Miracle Worker and Young Frankenstein


Julian Peņa, Michael Leeth, Damon J. Bolling, Barbara McBain, Andrew Lipman, Jonathan Holdsworth, Chad Campbell and Aaron Zweiback
Turning successful movies into Broadway musicals is a trend that has been going on for years now and there doesn't seem be an end in sight. One of the more successful of these adaptations was the 2000 musical The Full Monty. Taking this British 1997 hit sleeper film and basing it in Buffalo, New York, might seem like a bad move in that the English working class sensibility of the film would get lost. But the themes that are brought up in the film—of unemployment, divorce, single parenting and reversed gender roles—are universal and just as relevant today as they were when the film and musical first premiered, so moving the location to a repressed U.S. city like Buffalo actually makes complete sense. The show was a hit on Broadway and has been a staple of regional theatres in the time since. The Mesa Encore Theatre's production has engaging direction and a capable cast that easily brings out the humor and charm of the characters and makes the identifiable themes instantly relatable.

The story follows Jerry, an unemployed, divorced father of a teenage boy, and his former co-worker and best friend Dave. Unable to find work, and behind in his child support payments, when Jerry hears how much the women in town paid to attend a "girl's night out" with a touring group of Chippendale's male strippers, he hits upon the idea of finding a few local guys to put on a one night only strip show of their own to make some quick cash. But getting a bunch of unemployed fellows with low self-worth, body issues and deep fears of self-consciousness to take off their clothes for money isn't an easy thing. And when Jerry hears that the ladies in town aren't interested in attending his show, since they've just seen the "real thing" with the Chippendales, he does the only thing he can to remedy the situation and make the money he needs. He states that he and his buddies are willing to go "the full monty" and take everything off, a proclamation that doesn't sit well at all with his five fellow stripping buddies.

The updated book by Terrence McNally, which creates realistic, three dimensional characters, and David Yazbek's jazzy score elevate the musical, making it better than most of the other film to musical adaptations. The show was nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and if it weren't for a little show called The Producers that opened on Broadway that same season and won every Tony Monty had been nominated for, I think the show would have won many Tonys, including the one for Best Musical. So it's easy to see why the show has become so popular in regional theatres.

The actors playing the six main male parts in this production form an engaging, cohesive group. As Jerry, Damon J. Bolling imparts a nice sense of urgency and eagerness in his willingness to do just about anything to be with his son. And while he struggled just a bit on a few of the high sustained notes at the performance I attended, he has a strong, pleasant singing voice. Andrew Lipman, who was a highlight in MET's last show Big River, scores as Jerry's best friend Dave. Lipman is a big guy, but moves smoothly and has no qualms about using his extra weight for comic effect. Chad Campbell, Julian Peņa, Michael Leeth and Jonathan Holdsworth round out the rest of Jerry's stripping gang and each brings a terrific amount of energy and realism to his role. Campbell is a comic delight in the part of mama's boy Malcom, eliciting huge laughs from the audience with his ability to make Malcom a sweet, simple man who finds humor in the smallest things.

The women in the cast are just as effective, with Barbara McBain a gem in the role of Jeanette, the older piano player who just happens to show up at the stripper auditions. McBain, who was extremely impressive in Desert Stages Theatre's production of Driving Miss Daisy this past winter, shows she is just adept at comedy, wringing every comic nuance from her lines. The actresses who are playing the three wives in the cast make them all distinctive characters. Heather Fallon and Lizz Reeves Fidler have great vocal chops, making their songs soar, and both bring a considerable amount of tenderness to their scenes with their on-stage husbands Lipman and Peņa, respectively. The role of Pam, Jerry's ex-wife, is a fairly thankless part, since it's basically the only antagonist in the show, but Brenda Jean Foley manages to impart an amount of realism and firmness to Pam that makes Jerry's actions seem more understandable.

Aaron Zweiback is notable as Jerry's teenage son, exhibiting fine acting skills. Jesse Ochoa, as the Chippendale's stripper, is evocative with his stripping dance moves. He also brings a nice level of wittiness to his line delivery and in his interactions with Bolling and Lipman adds a layer of charm underneath.

Director Chris Hamby instills a lively level of direction in the production, effectively using the space wisely and partnering well with choreographer Paul Pedersen, who makes the dance moves for the men natural, especially in getting across the sense that most of them don't actually know how to dance. Creative elements are fine for a community theatre production, with the costume designs by Joe Navan and Pam Pershing nicely done, though Chris Peterson's scenic and sound design is pretty threadbare. At the performance I attended there were a few small set mishaps and some scene changes that took longer than they should, as well as missed light cues and microphone problems. But hopefully they will get those issues resolved with more performances under their belts. Debra Jo Davey leads an impressive eight-piece band and manages to get the depth of Yazbek's score from her small group of musicians.

A celebration of life's struggles and one's abilities to overcome the obstacles that get in the way, The Full Monty is a musical filled with adult humor and situations but also a considerable amount of charm. The Mesa Encore Theatre production gets many things right. The fact that the six actors in the lead male parts don't exactly have muscular bodies or model looks, yet their characters summon the strength to find themselves and overcome their problems, goes a long way to show that any of us "average Joe's" can find a way to deal with the lemons that life throws at us.

The Full Monty runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through June 15th, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at mesaencoretheatre.com/.

Direction by Chris Hamby
Musical Direction by Debra Jo Davey, DMA
Choreography by Paul Pedersen
Producer: Jeffrey J. Davey
Stage Manager: Paris D. Rhoad
Technical Director, Scenic Design, Sound Design: Chris Peterson
Lighting Design: Bret G. Reese
Hair & Makeup Design/Costume Design: Joe Navan
Costume Design: Pam Pershing
Props Design: Tammy Gilbert

Cast (in order of appearance):
Georgie Bukatinsky: Heather Fallon
Buddy (Keno) Walsh: Jesse Ochoa
Reg Willoughby: Charles Blessing
Jerry Lukowski: Damon J. Bolling*
Dave Bukatinsky: Andrew Lipman
Malcom MacGregor: Chad Campbell
Ethan Girard: Jonathan Holdsworth
Nathan Lukowski: Aaron Zweiback
Molly MacGregor: Rebecca Weinstein
Joanie Lish: Star Parra
Dolores: Katy Callie
Estelle Genovese: Barkley Romero
Pam Lukowski: Brenda Jean Foley*
Teddy Slaughter: Joe Navan
Susan Hershey: Rebecca Weinstein
Harold Nichols: Julian Peņa
Vicki Nichols: Lizz Reeves Fidler
Jeanette A. Burmeister: Barbara McBain
Noah (Horse) T. Simmons: Michael Leeth
Tony Giordano: Peyton Gerry

*member, Actors' Equity Association


Photo: Wade Moran

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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