The setup: There really isn't anything wrong with the lemons God gave you, even before you pluckily make lemonade from them. But in 1997, when director Peter Cattaneo showed us the work of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) in The Full Monty, the desperate, laid-off male inhabitants of economically ravaged steel town Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, became brave, brilliant, sexy heroes. (Oh, yeah -- by stripping for money in front of friends, family, and neighbors, despite zero qualifications to do so, in case you didn't know.) Mesa Encore Theatre's mounting of the fine stage musical that resulted (set in Buffalo, New York) runs one more weekend in the Nesbitt/Elliott Playhouse at Mesa Arts Center.
See also: Musical The Secret Garden Delves Into the Human Psyche at Peoria's Arizona Broadway Theatre
The execution: Directing a musical is an unusually tricky job. Blending the talents of writers, performers, and designers and meshing them with the clockwork precision of the running crew becomes even more like Iron Chef when you throw in the creation and execution of choreography, singing, and often (thankfully) a live instrumental ensemble, with everything happening at once but also at exactly the right moment.
Generally, when you see a musical that's fundamentally enjoyable even though it has flaws, you're seeing an inherently challenging but still interesting piece of theater or else the work of a competent director who didn't have the time or raw materials (human or other) to make everything exactly as desired or planned. I can't say for sure, but it seems to me in the case of this Monty that the director, Chris Hamby, is in completely over his head, and an outstanding performing ensemble, supported by functional designs and one of Debra Jo Davey, DMA's killer show bands, is carrying him sufficiently to keep audiences engaged through a draggy, unimaginatively executed show.
Hamby is Theater Works' Director of Puppet Works and Director of Education and Outreach. As far as I can tell from program bios and his Facebook page, he is a nice, experienced, well-educated guy who works his butt off, and others enjoy working with him.
MET's promotional materials describe him as having received nine ariZoni awards. I count seven, but people make typos, and artists sometimes change their names. However wildly the administrative and operational details of the ariZoni award program have fluctuated over the decades, the winners remind me of the converse of that overconfident friend of yours' taste in movies: When it comes to the ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence, you can count on the winners being pretty good no matter what, or the evaluators wouldn't have recognized them -- but you also can count on a whole lot of other equally excellent work going overlooked, because there's just so much of it. And that's the good news.
Hamby's ariZoni awards are all in the Youth Theatre category. This means, briefly, that the casts were made up of non-professional minors. Wrangling them takes many of the same skills as directing adult actors as well as a special set, while some subtleties have to fall entirely by the wayside. This could have something to do with why few of the promotional photos for Monty show closeups of a small number of characters interacting sincerely. Hamby might not be accustomed to staging shots like that, as they are more rare in adult-free ensembles (though youth-cast shows are often really very watchable and remarkably moving).
It may or may not also have to do with why the performance creeps past like an adorable baby sloth crossing a bath towel. There's usually something diverting going on during scene changes, generally some spunky dancing courtesy of choreographer Paul Pedersen. And Terrence McNally's very good script is long to begin with, it's obvious. But when that's what you have to work with, you have to turn up the burner and keep it boiling. This amp is stuck on 7. (Someone once told me it's pointless and mean to rate anything lower than 7 out of 10.)
Finally, something that is undeniably the director's responsibility is the blocking and the use of the performers' mass and movement in the stage space. For the most part, it is execrable in all moments of this production except the dance numbers. It's extremely static and does some fine actors a real disservice.
On to that mindblowing cast, though! As is appropriate here, the male featured players (our six eventual Hot Metal exotic dancers) have powerful, lovely voices and loads of charisma, individually quirky as it may be. Lead Damon J. Bolling, as hapless instigator Jerry, plays a character who's written to have particularly high stakes in his crisis of unemployment -- his ex-wife, Pam (Brenda Jean Foley from August: Osage County), threatens to, I guess, ask a court to give her full custody of their son because he's a couple grand behind in child support? Because of the having-been-laid-off thing. This sounds hinky and, at worst, impractically time-consuming in the U.S. legal system I'm familiar with, but Bolling makes us feel his fear and helplessness.
Jerry's merry band of misfits (the fat one with the troubled marriage, the old black one, the socially impaired one with the invalid mother, the one who's hiding his problems from his beloved, pampered wife, and the other one -- two of whom begin a sweetly, chastely gay romance) are all distinct and relatable and played by skilled actors who are really something, both together and separately. They're joined by Barbara McBain as Jeannette, an aging, chain-smoking pianist with eight husbands and an extremely personal story about every member of the Rat Pack and then some.
I wouldn't mind going on and on, after a nap and if you were buying the drinks, about how genius all these people are in various ways. But one of the most amazing is Chad Campbell, who entirely inhabits Malcolm (the socially impaired one). "Scary good" was my companion's accurate assessment of his skills. He was also amazing as Leaf Coneybear in MET's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and I didn't even recognize him until I read the program. Somewhat less serendipitously, the female ensemble backing up Foley and Heather Fallon (Damn Yankees -- who rocks and nails it as female lead Georgie, one of the wives) is simply solid -- not celestial, not terpsichorean, not fierce -- although they do look beautifully curvy, real, and down to earth in tacky working-woman's-night-outfits; Barkley Romero has a memorable urinal moment; and Lizz Reeves Fidler, as the pampered wife, pleasantly surprises with some bravura stylings at the end of her solo, "Life With Harold."
Finally, we gotta mention this guy. He's the first thing we see -- Jesse Ochoa as professional stripper Buddy "Keno" Walsh, whose success in Buffalo nightlife inspires all these shenanigans. There is nothing but joy involved in watching his body and his smile, and later in the show he demonstrates that he can also act. Plus he's a professional trainer in real life and the best lifesize 3D business card I have ever seen.
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The verdict: I had a good time watching this show. I got to enjoy the efforts of many fine theater artists winning me over despite some obstacles, and it's fun. The rest of the audience and, importantly, the cast, seemed to be having a cool bonding experience as well. David Yazbek's songs are witty and skillfully delivered. If you haven't seen this musical before, you should trot on out and enjoy. It has all the feels. You will also have the opportunity to see what a certain subset of bad theater practice looks like. That might be interesting for you, and it won't get in your way much.
The Full Monty continues through Sunday, June 15, at One East Main Street in Mesa.Tickets are $22 to $25 here or at 480-644-6500.