Robrt L. Pela has a ball at Phoenix Theatre's The Full Monty

The premise of The Full Monty is pretty simple: Six broke, unemployed Buffalo steelworkers decide to stage a one-night-only striptease act after noting the sell-out crowds drawn by a local Chippendales act. These guys are sick of being penniless and their leader, Jerry Lukowski, is worried that his son, who lives with Lukowski's ex-wife, thinks he's a loser. If Jerry can score with his "real men stripper" act, he'll bag $50,000 for himself and his cronies and prove to himself and his kid that he's not a creep.

Each time I see this musical adaptation of the popular British film of the same name, I'm startled by how lame Terrence McNally's formulaic script is, but never not impressed by what the cast, in each case, makes of it. In the production currently playing at Phoenix Theatre, that cast is bolstered by players imported from previous productions of the same show, but held aloft by a strong supporting cast of local actors and direction that keeps this overlong two-act (which clocks in at just under three hours) chugging along.

As Jerry Lukowski, John Ashley Brown strikes the perfect balance between working-class stiff and musical theater lead. That he looks more like a Chippendales dancer than a Buffalo steelworker (not to mention more than John Haubner, who plays the stripper here) didn't matter to me once Brown began singing. While most scenes find Brown front and center, showing off his abs and his lovely singing voice, I found myself looking forward to scenes featuring Adam Vargas, because his oafish, conflicted Dave Bukatinsky provided such a clever blend of comedy and pathos. As the kid, James LeGrand is quite good, and Edward M. Barker takes the entire proceedings up a notch with his rousing "Big Black Man," in which he transforms himself from geriatric slug to hip-grinding Soul Train dancer in a matter of minutes.

Ironically, the evening's best moment belongs not to any of these guys but to Mary Ellen Ashley, whose salty Jeanette Burmeister waltzes far away with the show with a number about the rigors of showbiz. Ashley's cheeky burlesque is nearly equaled by Kristen Drathman's delightfully hyper turn as Vicki Nichols, whose high-energy "Life with Harold" is a real show-stopper.

Despite all these fun and games, Phoenix Theatre doesn't appear to have much confidence in its Full Monty, as the company has posted theater employees at the exit doors to glower menacingly at critics (this one, at least) as they exit the playhouse. But not even such silliness could make me forget that I'd enjoyed much of what I'd just seen onstage. Possibly you will, too.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela