The Naked and the Dead Broke: Theatre Aspen goes ‘Full Monty’
Let’s get this out of the way. The answer is yes. They do take off their clothes — yes, all of their clothes, though the full-frontal “Full Monty” moment is brief, backlit and more silly than it is steamy.
It’s also a moment you can’t help but cheer for, as it’s the hard-earned culmination of a classic underdog story in musical form. Like rooting for Rocky or the Karate Kid, pulling for the six schlubs in Theatre Aspen’s production of “The Full Monty” to go full monty is the inevitable result of a production that hits the right emotional notes and tugs the appropriate heartstrings.
“The nudity gets a lot of attention, and it should,” said director and choreographer Mark Martino. “But it’s secondary to the story and the music and the pathos and the tenderness that is the play.”
A musical adaptation of the 1997 hit movie comedy “The Full Monty” opened on Broadway in 2000, scoring nine Tony nominations, winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and enjoying a two-year run. Written by Terrence McNally, the play moves the setting from the blue-collar England of the movie to Buffalo, New York, where six laid-off millworkers take to stripping to make some dough in a one-night performance.
The Theatre Aspen production has a cast of 19, led by Tally Sessions as Terry Lukowski, who organizes the one-night strip act — dubbed “Hot Metal” — after he and his buddies get the shaft from the mill.
These loveable lugs are emasculated by their unemployment. They face identity crises, they’re mocked by their wives, and they get their TVs repossessed. They’re fat or old or too skinny or too bald or too short, as the song “The Goods” memorably chronicles. But, the play sincerely argues, they have one another, and that’s what matters.
Each of the six Hot Metal guys, while rehearsing to take off his clothes for money, is struggling not only to make ends meet but to repair relationships. Jerry is scrambling to make child-support payments to his ex-wife (Erica Aubrey) so that he can hold on to custody of his son (Carter Graham). Dave (Dane Agostinis) is fat and ashamed but can’t put down the Doritos. Malcolm (Ben Liebert) is living with his mother at 30. Their factory manager Harold (James Ludwig) is fearful his big-spending, globetrotting wife (Michele Ragusa) will leave him after he gets canned. Ethan (Spencer Plachy) is just plain dumb. And Horse (Randy Donaldson) is coming to grips with the fact that he’s not hung like his namesake.
“These six guys are us,” Martino said. “They’re everybody who has gone through a divorce or been downsized. They all have problems that are relatable. And they all do something brave: They take off their clothes. And there’s something very relatable about that.”
The kinds of struggles are those that inevitably bubble up from economic hardship, Martino notes, and will hit home with anyone who lived through the Great Recession.
“What the audience connects with, I hope, is that it’s extremely timely,” he said. “The show is about people struggling to find self-worth, to find what makes them feel good about themselves, and that’s a theme that does not have a time or a place.”
Early in rehearsals, Martino reminded his cast about the numerous factory closings across the U.S. in recent decades and recent months, aiming to keep their characters’ struggles grounded in today’s age of disappearing middle-class opportunity.
“Let’s never make these people distant,” he told them. “They’re here and now. And they’re real people with real problems.”
The show opens with some of the guys’ wives hooting and hollering at an over-the-top Chippendales-style revue but quickly settles into its winning mix of heart and humor. Its 14 songs are mostly pop numbers, peppered with profanity and ridiculous rhymes (“cojones” at one point rhymes with “testerone is”). There are silly mock-sentimental notes, like “Big-Ass Rock,” which sends up Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” alongside heartfelt ballads like “You Rule My World” and bro anthems like “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” which comes at the end of a side-splitting practice session where the guys attempt pelvic thrusting and erotic dancing for the first time.
Coming off of an impressive 2013 season that included the epic “Les Miserables” in the 189-seat Theatre Aspen tent, the local company has taken on another sizeable challenge in “The Full Monty.” The production includes 37 set changes and 140 costumes (including six or seven leather thongs) and some notorious bare skin to choreograph. The show opened Thursday.
Alongside the grown-ups in the cast, and gamely trading a few F-bomb barbs with them, is the 11-year-old Carter Graham as Nathan Lukowski. Local audiences will recognize the young actor as Gavroche from last year’s “Les Mis” production. The young Aspenite’s performance, Martino noted, is an integral part of the emotional arc of the musical.
“The show hinges on that father-son relationship,” he said. “His father is willing to get naked in front of 1,000 people because he loves his son. So that emotional connection is key to making the show work.”
This fall, Graham is leaving the valley to enroll in the Denver School of the Arts to study theater.
Stout and proud
While the six lead male cast (ah-hem) members drive the show, Broadway veteran Mary Stout nearly steals it as their salty piano player, Jeannette.
She arrives as the guys begin practicing for their strip show. A cigarette dangling from her lips, Jeannette has been through the show-business ringer, and she regales the men with sordid tales and crusty one-liners like “If you want to be in show business, you should be spayed first.”
Jeannette is not in the 1997 movie, but McNally added her for the Broadway show.
“It’s a good character for me,” Stout said before a recent rehearsal. “I can truly say I’m right for this character, and I was dying to play it. … Every word that’s written for her has a payoff.”
Along with some of the show’s best punchlines, she gets one big song, “Jeannette’s Showbiz Number,” a mock motivational number in the second act that shows Jeannette trying to pick the boys up when they’re down.
“She’s a free spirit in many ways. She’s the right gal to work with these boys,” Stout said. “And she’s just so much fun to play.”
A Broadway staple for more than 30 years, with regular forays into regional theater, Stout said she jumped at the chance to come to Theatre Aspen. She and Martino have known each other since 1980, she said, when they were both at Syracuse Stage, in separate shows.
Stout compared her experience over the last month of rehearsals in Aspen to her early, pre-Broadway days in the 1970s doing summer stock shows around the country. The idyllic environs of the Hurst Theatre, she said, reminded her of those outdoor shows she performed in during college summers.
“It’s just a wonderful space,” she said. “Here we are in the middle of this sanctuary. It’s breathtaking. Aspen is so different. It’s like Oz — not that I’ve been to Oz — but it feels like a different world. I’ve been nowhere like this.”
Theatre Aspen’s reach into Broadway’s talent pool is evident in “The Full Monty.” Along with Stout, Broadway actors in the cast include Sessions, who was in last year’s “Big Fish”; Ragusa, who was in “Young Frankenstein,” “Urinetown” and McNally’s “Ragtime”; and Liebert, who was in “Wicked” and whom Theatre Aspen regulars will recognize from 2012’s local production of “Avenue Q.”
“I’m not hurting for Broadway kids,” Martino said.
The cast also includes two members of the TA Apprentice program, which gives students spots in the cast and crew, along with mentorship from the more experienced actors and crew members.
“I told them, ‘Watch Mary Stout because she commits 5,000 percent to everything,’” Martino said. “She can do any line reading she wants because she commits.”
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