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Monday, December 10, 2012

Blue Collar, and Little Else

From the Vault Dept.: Although the musical version of The Full Monty was set in Buffalo, it easily could have worked in Schenectady – especially in 2003, when the touring company landed at Proctors Theatre for a few days. The city was busy trying to shut down strip clubs at the time (the city was doing little else), and, as the companion piece to the review below points out, the musical violated city ordinances. Also at issue, and ongoing, is the matter of scab tours. Actors Equity, a union to which I belong, protects the salaries and working conditions of actors in professionally produced shows, but some tour producers avoid signing to an Equity contract and save themselves money at the expense of presenting a truly excellent show. You’ll pay the same at the box office, however, so it behooves you check the staus of a touring show – which you can do here.


TERRENCE MCNALLY HAD a big country’s worth of cities to choose from when he transplanted the action of The Full Monty from Sheffield, England, to the United States. But he set the unemployed steelworkers in Buffalo, a depressingly credible choice. When a character mentions that his brother moved to Albany to work in a mall, it gets a laugh of startled recognition. Schenectady, which started its theatrical identity as the butt of many a vaudeville joke, isn’t mentioned, but given the absurd limitation the city imposed (see Half Cocked, below), McNally might be tempted to add something.

Getting back to Buffalo, it’s an excellent choice. The job market is as bad there as anywhere, and that probably inspired a sense of fellow feeling wherever the show played during the lengthy tour that just ended. Based on a 1997 British hit movie, the show captures the same sense of camaraderie we felt for those Sheffield steelworkers, so desperate both for money and a sense of self-esteem that they decide to stage a striptease show.

The musical Full Monty opened on Broadway three years ago to the same critical compromise the movie enjoyed: too lightweight to be taken seriously, but too much fun to be ignored. And audiences for both have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. (The title, by the way, is a fairly recent British slang term equivalent to “the whole shebang,” possibly originating as a salute to suits obtained from British tailor Montague Burton.)

Among McNally’s credits are the plays Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Master Class; his previous musical books include Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman. He brings to Monty a fleet and funny style as well as the ability to write characters with compassion, informing them with compelling qualities.

Even a cartoony sequence like the attempted suicide of hapless Malcolm MacGregor (played with absolute conviction by Leo Daignault) becomes not only a funny scene but also the lead-in to the hilarious song “Big-Ass Rock,” a trio with former shopmates Jerry and Dave.

It’s Jerry who puts together the striptease scheme, and, as played by the excellent Christian Anderson, he’s every blue-collar worker you’ve ever known who religiously plays the lottery. Anderson has a voice that’s more pop-rock than Broadway, and that suits the David Yazbek score just fine—this was pop-song composer Yazbek’s first foray into a book show.

Dave, Jerry’s best friend, is the voice of reason, and Eric Leviton adds to that the kind of deadpan wisecrack delivery that defines a comic sidekick. Both men are dealing with marital problems: Jerry needs to come up with child-support payments in order to keep seeing his son, Nathan (played by Aaron Nutter when I saw the show, rotating the role with Ryan Postal). Dave, depressed by joblessness and self-conscious about his enormous belly, can’t bring himself to be intimate with his wife, who is played with tremendous gusto by Jennifer Naimo.

She’s enjoying a girls’ night out at the local strip joint as the show opens, and that kicks into gear the series of brainstorms that leads to Jerry’s scheme. Along the way, he recruits other would-be strippers: “Horse” Simmons, for instance, played to the hilt by Milton Craig Nealy with the showstopping number “Big Black Man” as a centerpiece; energetic Ethan, whose running gag is a running gag as he tries (and fails) to emulate Donald O’Connor’s Singing in the Rain standing somersault. Played by Trey Ellett, he’s pure, infectious energy.

Older and wiser is former supervisor Harold (Robert Westenberg), who signs on as dance instructor on the condition that nobody tell his wife he lost his job six months ago. Broadway veteran Westenberg displayed outsized lupine genitalia in the original production of Into the Woods, and brings a distinctive staccato style and splendid singing voice to the role of Harold.

It’s hard to single out any member of this amazing cast for extra praise, but Jane Connell deserves plaudits as the guys’ feisty accompanist, warning them in “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number” that “things could be better ’round here.”

Broadway productions don’t always fit comfortably in the touring-company package, but this one worked excellently. All it lacked was the large orchestra that gives musical theater its unique sound. Certainly the singing and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography kept the evening vibrant. And that energy surged right through to the very end, despite the Schenectady-imposed modesty devices you couldn’t see anyway. Given the issues of trust and vulnerability that characterize the show, this “moral crusade” the city has been waging looked more ridiculous still. Of course, none of the city so-called fathers was there to see and understand that. Schenectady typically can’t wait for one foot to heal before it shoots the other one.

The Full Monty
Book by Terrence McNally, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, directed by Jack O’Brien
Proctor’s Theatre, Dec. 14

*   *   *

Half Cocked

DURING THE FINAL PERFORMANCE of The Full Monty at Proctor’s Theatre, as the six former steelworkers were being urged by the rest of the cast to bare all, someone in the audience shouted, “Do it for Schenectady!”It even got a laugh from the performers, who ended their tour with an unexpected national blitz of publicity. Once again, Schenectady embarrassed itself by being the only stop on a 48-state tour that required the actors to cover their penises in the final moment of the show—a fraction of a second, performed in silhouette in front of a super-candlepower marquee, during which the naked actors drop their genital-shielding hats.

The story was picked up by the Associated Press and went national, meriting wisecracks on CNN and Live! with Regis and Kelly. As reported by Schenectady’s Daily Gazette, the ban was yet another move by outgoing corporation counsel Michael Brockbank to save the city from sin.

Upon appeal from a strip-club owner, Schenectady’s public-nudity law was struck down by a federal judge in 1997. Three years later it was passed again in a reworded version that removed the exemption from places like Proctor’s Theatre and Union College. Action photos of a fedora-hatted Brockbank then blitzed across area newspapers as the Carrie Nation of nudity invaded strip clubs and ordered the arrests of dancers and owners.

“I’d like to think that Brockbank hasn’t been on a personal moral crusade,” said Schenectady mayor-elect Brian Stratton, “but that he’s trying to protect the city from litigation. But I thought that The Full Monty incident was ridiculous, and I’d like to do whatever I can to ensure it doesn’t happen again. My corporation counsel and I will look at this to the extent that we don’t have to go back to square one. People can judge for themselves what they want to buy tickets for.”

As presented to the cast of The Full Monty, the situation sounded fairly extreme. “We were told there [would be] be cops in the house,” said Trey Ellett, one of the six, “and that if we didn’t wear these things, they’d shut the show down immediately.”

Ironically, as the run progressed, those modesty devices got more and more “misplaced.” Audience members couldn’t tell the difference and still could be heard grumbling about the censorship on their way out.

But that put-on wasn’t the biggest rip-off associated with the show—just the sexiest. Schenectady isn’t actually the last stop on the tour, but it was the last opportunity to see Equity actors perform. The producers sold the rest of the tour to Networks, a Clear Channel subsidiary, which will pay the fledgling actors about one-third of Equity rates. Even though the quality of the show is thus compromised, ticket prices are no different from an Equity tour—with the producers pocketing the difference.

Hundreds of actors and allies rallied in Manhattan in October to protest these tours. “Across the country, theaters are misleading their subscribers by describing their seasons as ‘Broadway series’ when those seasons include non-Equity tours,” Equity first vice-president Mark Zimmerman said at that event. “It’s time for those theaters to stop cheapening the Broadway brand by using it to describe shows that do not compensate the actors, stage managers and all other show personnel as professionals.”

“So we really weren’t happy to see all this attention the show suddenly got in Schenectady,” said Ellett. “We don’t want to support the non-union part of the tour.”

Sunday night’s show—its audience size diminished by the snowstorm—finished with an emotional parting for many, with real tears visible during the curtain call. “You people were great,” actor Robert Westenberg told fans waiting at the stage door. “Pound for pound, you were our best audience.”

“I don’t know who the city of Schenectady is protecting,” said one audience member who wished to remain anonymous. “I live here and I don’t want the city making artistic decisions about what I can and can’t see on a theater stage.”

Metroland Magazine, Dec. 18, 2003

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