The moment when a big Broadway musical first wins over a hopeful audience is a singular thrill — the result of a current of energy simultaneously juicing both the performers and the performed-for. As an amazingly successful little movie about a bunch of unemployed, average-bodied English blokes who redefine their virility by stripping down to the altogether, the 1997 British sleeper The Full Monty charmed millions, and even those who, like me, were resistant to its whimsies could admire its wiles. But Robert Carlyle and his mates on the screen were male-bonding and hip-swiveling in the void.
As a Broadway musical, on the other hand, The Full Monty does something more daring, and does it better, too: This exhilarating new show — which I fully expect will still be going strong a decade from now — makes wonderful, timely, intelligent, tuneful singing and dancing out of a well-liked movie. (Students of Footloose and Saturday Night Fever know how hard that can be.) It seamlessly resets the story, transforming blokes into out-of-work guys from Buffalo who loosen up for their macho bump-and-grind with feint-and-dunk American basketball moves. It offers men and women exposing themselves to audience scrutiny while singing about that most American of obsessions, physical imperfection.
And that magic Broadway moment occurs four songs in, with ”Big-Ass Rock,” a big-ass hit that sums up everything funny and swingin’ about the show’s career-making music and lyrics by Broadway newcomer David Yazbek. This is, after all, a song in which three down-on-their-luck men sing about how great it is to have a buddy who can helpfully smash your head in. Terrence McNally’s book reflexively leans toward the arch: ”If you want to be in show business, you should be spayed first,” snaps the salty old trouper (resilient old trouper Kathleen Freeman), a new character who volunteers as the boys’ rehearsal pianist. But given space by the uncluttered direction of Jack O’Brien, Yazbek’s rhymes and references — slangy, blunt, casual, sometimes happily rude — pop with red-blooded wit.
Of the excellent cast (who, in a rousing climax, do bare it all — not that you’ll see dick, what with Howell Binkley’s ingenious lighting), two… stand out. John Ellison Conlee, in the role that made a star of Mark Addy, is about to become a sex symbol for so adorably playing the Fat One. (He sings ”You Rule My World” to his love handles.) And veteran Andre De Shields provides the second of an evening’s multiple joys with his showstopping James Brown-hot riff on stereotype, ”Big Black Man.” The cheers he elicits spill out onto Broadway, nakedly proclaiming The Full Monty a smash. A