Theater Review: THE FULL MONTY (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre in Evanston)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 11, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


For the sake of the butterfly we love the cocoon. The Full Monty, a musical version by David Yazbek and Terrence McNally, is industriously inspired by the popular 1997 film about unemployed working-class Brits. The movie fondly embraced a bunch of lovable losers who give themselves a second chance to make and feel good. This fully Americanized musical version is a rock-solid charmer — and it’s a good christening for the new 85-seat Evanston home of Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (formerly found in Rogers Park at the No Exit Café).

It borrows a reliable formula where back-to-basic, table-turning musicals work overtime to even life’s odds. Heavy on grand gestures that “cock a snoot” at hard times and bad bosses, this sweet-tempered protest show joins other British offerings — Billy Elliott, Calendar Girls, Brassed Off, and the ill-fated The Last Ship — to celebrate spunky survivors performing unexpected acts to prove they can dream as much as economize. Not all these gentle winners convince us that their symbolic solutions — dancing in tights, posing as post-menopausal pin-ups, recreating a municipal band, illegally building a last tanker — are much more than empty evasions.

Perhaps the best of the bunch is The Full Monty, named for a one-night-only striptease by six ex-industrial workers who may or not raise $50,000 (donated, strangely, by their equally-indebted wives and friends). Since the steel mill hasn’t reopened, this daring act beats charity and distracts from toiling as Walmart greeters or security guards.

Book writer McNally (Ragtime) and composer/lyricist Yazbek (The Band’s Visit) retain their source’s sympathy for life’s underdogs and their hard-won hopes. Though the songs spell out what the film was smarter to hint at, this is an endearing evening, potentially rich with fully earned emotion and loaded with laughs.

Ben Lipinski’s set is basically rolling props and a graffiti-ridden corrugated iron backdrop. It totally conveys hard-luck Buffalo, a downsized Rust Belt burg where layoffs strain marriages and the good times refuse to roll. Desperate to pay his child support and encouraged by his son Nathan (Sean Zielinski), Jerry Lukowski (charismatic Matt Frye) recruits his out-of-work buddies to raise money and hope: Determined to improve on the Chippendale dancers (who their wives and girlfriends too easily adore), they’ll create their own homegrown Minsky’s Burlesque complete with frontal nudity. Call it summer stock striptease.

And their inspiration will not be Flashdance or Footloose: No, it’s “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” which choreographer Sawyer Smith turns into a basketball practice turned rhythm and romp.

The musical lovingly assembles their fears and needs, including two closet cases (Joe Giovannetti and Neil Stratman) in the lovely “You Walk with Me”) who quietly come out, a hefty husband (Nick Druzbanski) with body-image issues, and an African-American named “Horse” (Marc Prince) who worries that his body will undermine a certain stupid stereotype. There’s a raucous song that mocks suicide, the aforementioned production number inspired by jump shots, and “The Goods,” a role-reversing, table-turning anthem that gleefully depicts the women objectifying the men.

In the process of creating their unlikely “Hot Metal” striptease fundraiser, these out-of-shape, mostly middle-aged husbands, fathers, and gay boyfriends “Let It Go,” as the finale proclaims. The simulated total nudity of the titular finale is a metaphor for getting down to fundamentals in order to start over.

Scene stealing with larcenous delight, chain-smoking Kate Harris wows the crowd as piano player Jeanette, a hard-boiled showbiz vet who rallies the guys whenever they hit rock bottom. The real exposure comes well before the famous “full monty” that concludes the fun with a technical tease.

For almost three hours (and the second act is a bit overloaded with late-blooming exposition), we get to know these wonderful amateurs from the inside out. Contagiously danced and solidly acted, artistic director Fred Anzevino’s revival revels in blue-collar Chicago authenticity and convincing casting. (In contrast, John Cardone, as a somewhat over-the-hill male dancer, provides a counterweight as the “competition.”)

It’s redemptive to see a show that combines unflagging humor with a refusal to condescend to its characters or soft-peddle their struggles. When the ensemble belts out the rousing finale (as many of them mingle with the audience to up the ante), the title proves terrifically true — and not just for these Buffalo believers.

A certain roughness can be expected and excused, given this feel-good, salt-of-the-earth, proletarian reveille — especially when this kickoff production had to contend with the construction pains of carving out a new space on Howard Street. No question, smoother sailing is just beyond the horizon.

photos by Austin D. Oie

The Full Monty
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
721 Howard Street in Evanston (1/2 mile west of Howard CTA station)
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 7
ends on January 27, 2019
for tickets, call 773.347.1109  or visit Theo U

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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