Richard Israel’s intimate staging of the 2001 Broadway hit The Full Monty is so perfect on just about every level that a visit to the Third Street Theatre ought to be required of anyone aiming to produce, direct, appear in, musical direct, or design a 99-seat-plan musical—or by anyone who’s ever foolishly asserted that L.A. doesn’t know how to “do theater.”

Though the Broadway original lost all nine of its Tony Award nominations to The Producers, the David Yazbek-Terrence McNally musical about a sextet of unemployed Buffalo factory workers turned Chippendales-style strippers is about as crowd-pleasing as a musical can get, and in director Israel’s and choreographer John Todd’s gifted hands, it becomes the first must-see show of the 2012-13 season.

I’ve seen six previous productions of The Full Monty, beginning with the First National Tour (which played at the Ahmanson back in 2002), and though I wasn’t initially the show’s biggest fan, I’ve come to appreciate what an all-around terrific musical it is. The Full Monty has four-time Tony winner McNally’s great book featuring real three-dimensional characters, a jazzy score by Yazbek which recalls the early ‘70s hits of Chicago (pre-Peter Cetera), and some darned sexy choreography.

For those who have somehow never seen The Full Monty, the musical centers on six unemployed Buffalo steelworkers who find themselves so in need of cash that, after seeing their wives go gaga for a touring Chippendales-style show, they decide to stage their own strip extravaganza as “Hot Metal.” When the working women of Buffalo seem ill-inclined to shell out their hard-earned bucks to see men who are nowhere near as built as the strippers they’re accustomed to, our six heroes decide there’s only one sure way to insure a full house—give their audience The Full Monty.

You know you’re in for something special at the Third Street Theatre from the very get-go when not only do you get to hear musical director Johanna Kent and her live, offstage five-piece band playing the heck out of Yazbek’s “Overture,” you get to see them projected great-big in black-and-white on both sides of the stage thanks to Sheiva Khalily’s ingenious scenic/projection design.

Then comes male stripper Buddy (Keno) Walsh’s pelvis-thrusting, buns-baring solo at the local strip club, choreographed to sizzling perfection by Todd (who played Keno at Musical Theatre West back in 2007), with a bunch of screaming female Buffaloites seated among us.

Through the magic of Khaliliy’s design talents, we’re then transported almost instantaneously to the down-and-out steel mill where laid-off factory workers Jerry Lukowski (Will Collyer), Dave Bukatinsky (Ryan O’Connor), Malcolm MacGregor (Morgan Reynolds), and Ethan Girard (Justin Michael Wilcox) are collecting unemployment checks because, as they sing, they are “Scrap.”  (Another rip-roaring production number with some chair-banging choreography by Todd.)

Mill morphs into men’s lavatory as Jerry and Dave sneak into the strip club to find out what all the hullabaloo is about, only to end up having to hide from Jerry’s ex Pam (Shannon Warne), Dave’s wife Georgie (Erin Bennett), and several of their gal pals who’ve come to check out where the other half pee.

Overheard complaints and a later meeting with cocky stripper Keno (Todd Stroik) plant an idea in Jerry’s head. Now, if he can only find willing volunteers, the onetime working men of Buffalo can turn themselves into Hot Metal, put on a one-night-only strip show of their own, and pocket $50,000, Jerry’s share  of which will easily take care of his in-arrears child support payments and insure him continued shared custody of 12-year-old Nathan (Owen Teague).

Under Israel’s as-always inspired direction, a cast of some of L.A.’s most talented triple-threats deliver one pitch-perfect performance after another, and where else but in Los Angeles County can you find a small-stage musical with 13 Actors’ Equity members out of a cast of 17 and tickets running just $34 or less?

As lifelong best friends Jerry and Dave, Israel has cast two terrifically talented singing actors who (wonder of wonders) actually are their characters’ ages, reminding us just how young these two early-30somethings are.

As divorced dad Jerry, Collyer adds yet another richly detailed performance to his résumé, following recent star turns in MTG readings of High Fidelity and Little Women. With bona fide acting chops and a voice that makes “Breeze Off The River” sound even more exquisite, Collyer makes Jerry very much his own, and exhibits palpable paternal rapport with Teague, about as real and likable a child actor as preteen thesps can get.

O’Connor was born to play Jerry’s best bud Dave, a part he invests with warmth and pathos and humor, and a gorgeous tenor to boot. Bennett is a ballsy standout too as Dave’s loving but frustrated wife Georgie, belting “It’s A Woman’s World” all the way to the rafters. And speaking of balls, there’s Jan Sheldrick’s scene-stealing supporting turn as Jeanette, the rehearsal pianist with a résumé dating back to Sinatra and his Rat Pack, a history she she looks back on in the show-stopping “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number.”

 The Full Monty marks the welcome return to local stages of star-in-the-making Reynolds, who gives Mama’s boy Malcolm a quirky geekiness (or geeky quirkiness) that proves quite irresistible. As for Malcolm’s partner-in-crime Ethan, the wannabe stripper with a fixation on Donald O’Connor’s dancing up the wall in Singin’ In The Rain, Wilcox is once again utterly winning, his duet with Reynolds of “You Walk With Me” prompting this reviewer to wipe away more than a few tears.

Of White’s 2009 performance as Horse in CLOSBC’s big-stage production of The Full Monty, I wrote, “Of the six steelworkers turned male strippers, the biggest scene stealer of them all is Harrison White as Horse, a ‘Big Black Man’ who can still shake his groove thing with the best of them, despite a few aches and pains. When White belts out the appropriately titled ‘Big Black Man,’ he brings the house down.” Ditto in 2012, and then some.

Returning from last year’s Third Street Theatre production of Falsettos as out-of-work foreman Harold and his wife Vicky (who has no idea her hubby lost his job six months ago) are the dynamic duo of Chip Phillips and Wendy Rosoff, The Full Monty giving Phillips a chance to show off his velvet pipes in “You Rule My World” and Rosoff to make the show-stopping “Life With Harold” fabulously her own.

Also worthy of mention is Warne’s strong dramatic work as Jerry’s frustrated ex Pam, and though it may seem almost criminal to give the six-time Scenie winner only one tiny bit of a single song (“The Goods”), this largely non-musical role made this reviewer realize just how great Warne would be in a play. (Casting directors please take note.)

Completing the cast in a variety of roles is a particularly strong featured ensemble made up of Sydney Blair (Estelle), Brian Durkin (Teddy), Suzan Solomon (Susan), Nikki Jenkins (Joanie), and Paul Walling (Reg/Tony).

In addition to Khalily (amazingly just beginning her junior year at UCLA), The Full Monty’s prodigiously talented design team includes lighting whiz Lisa D. Katz, costume designer extraordinaire Jessica Olson, and sound designer Bryan Maier. If there’s anything to nitpick about, it’s that audience members seated house left (as this reviewer was) may find vocals occasionally somewhat overwhelmed by the proximity of Kent and her band—Nathan Atwater on upright bass, Kent on keyboards, Emily Lawyer on trumpet and flugelhorn, orchestrator Brian Morales on reeds, and Sam Webster on drums and percussion.

The Full Monty is produced by Lani Shipman, Kimberly Harrigan, and Richard Hellstern. Faryl Saar is stage manager. Casting is by Amy Lieberman, CSA.

Those who object to four-letter words are hereby warned: The Full Monty is rated R for language. Also, those with an aversion to male buttocks might feel the need to avert their eyes from time to time.   This reviewer minded neither.

Ultimately, The Full Monty is a show about family, and family values of the realest kind. It’s about taking chances, and not taking “No” for an answer. It’s about being proud of who you are, regardless of how you look or what gender you love, much of this due to McNally’s particularly fine book. As for Third Street Theatre’s pitch-perfect downsizing of the big-stage Broadway original, this is one case where (unlike with the men of Hot Metal), smaller is indeed better.

Third Street Theatre, 8115 W. Third Street, West Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 7, 2012
Photos: Richard Hellstern

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