Ray of Light goes the Full Monty

Six guys from Buffalo preparing to go "The Full Monty." Photo by Claire Rice. 

There are some things, I think, that are just plain wrong. Then there are some things I think that are just plain wrong. For an example of the first, I think it's always a bad idea to adapt a non-musical film into a work of musical theater (or opera). It seems so facile, such an obvious example of how our culture has become lazy, using a popular movie as the basis for a stage work. Built-in audience and all of that, creating a new work which seems to exist for no other reason that its can exploit the financial success of its ancestor to sell tickets. The notion of creating "art" seems wholly absent to me in such adaptations. However, in one of the myriad ways in which my thinking is riddled with prejudices which don't hold up to scrutiny, for some reason the reverse, turning a play into a film, doesn't bother me very much, even though in many ways it's probably a worse exploitation and likely to yield an equally offensive, it not worse, result (Doubt, for example).

I'm obviously wrong for thinking this, which I was reminded of as I sat in my seat enjoying Ray of Light Theatre Company's new production of "The Full Monty" immensely- in fact much more than I thought I would. Much more than I wanted to, truth be told, because as I said, turning a film into a musical is a bad idea. But if it's such a bad idea than why was the play so much fun?

Credit Ray of Light for once again gathering a great cast in a wisely-chosen show and making it work really well. Make no mistake- "The Full Monty" isn't a great play- with the exception of a couple of tunes (the opening "Scrap" and the James Brown-influenced-to-point-of-homage "Big Black Man") the music by David Yazbek isn't all that memorable and Terrence McNally's book utilizes stock characters rather than creates interesting new ones, but this matters little in the end because if there's one thing "The Full Monty" does have going for it, it's heart, and this production fully capitalizes on that.

The plot is pretty much the same as the film's- a group of men's identities and lives are deteriorating under the withering toll of unemployment and in a last-ditch, desperate effort to raise some much-needed cash and their own self-esteem, decide to become male strippers for a night. The only difference from the film is that the guys are now from Buffalo instead of somewhere in England, allowing the jokes and references to be more culturally relevant to American audiences. Except for their also laid-off boss, these man live in a blue-collar world, paycheck-to-paycheck, and now without one, with their only prospect being low-paid gigs as security guards. Though the characters are working-class, their crushed self-esteem, anxiety about the future, self-doubt and diminished futures are now issues for everyone and these laid-off mill workers from Buffalo are pretty much today's everyman. The cast does an excellent job at bringing out the impact  of these circumstances through nuances which aren't in the script- the use of expressions, body language and intonation all add depth to characters which in the hands of less-talented actors could easily be little more than stereotypes or caricatures.

Of special note among thoroughly solid cast are the acting chops of Joshua Fryvecind as schlumpy ringleader Jerry Lukowski, the singing chops of Cami Thompson as Jeanette Burmeister, Derek Travis Collard as Harold Nichols has perhaps the most difficult role and really shines, as does Wendell Wilson as Horse. The women have less thankful roles, but Helen Laroche and  Sophia Campobasso leave lasting impressions in this funny, entertaining show.

And yes, in case you were wondering, they do go all they way, delivering "the full monty."

The sets by Maya Linke are unusually dark and gritty, but allow the cast to move about freely. Mary Kalita's choreography works for the ensemble numbers and Scarlett Kellum's costumes are spot on. The musicians under Ben Prince are too loud for the Eureka Theater- a problem in last season's Assassins as well- turn the amplification down, please, way down. But these are minor quibbles- the show is well-worth seeing.

The Full Monty runs through June 30th at the Eureka Theater (215 Jackson Street, at Battery, SF). The company brings Sondheim's Sweeney Todd to the same space beginning July 13th for a month-long run. You can get tickets here, and the company is offering a discount if you buy tickets to both shows. See their website for the deal.