New York gets some Sheffield steel

'The Full Monty' is now a Broadway musical. It's a hit, says Fred Bernstein
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The Independent Culture

The big question at The Full Monty isn't "Will they or won't they?"; these day, nudity - even male nudity - is no big deal on Broadway. (Suffice it to say that the smokestacks painted on the backdrop - part of a location change from Sheffield to blue-collar Buffalo, New York - aren't the only phalluses adorning Manhattan's Eugene O'Neill Theatre.)

The big question at The Full Monty isn't "Will they or won't they?"; these day, nudity - even male nudity - is no big deal on Broadway. (Suffice it to say that the smokestacks painted on the backdrop - part of a location change from Sheffield to blue-collar Buffalo, New York - aren't the only phalluses adorning Manhattan's Eugene O'Neill Theatre.)

No, the big question is whether the team behind The Full Monty can do what has seemed almost impossible for decades: bring together book, music, lyrics and choreography into an evening that works as well as some of the revivals ( Kiss Me Kate, The Music Man) playing nearby. And, at the same time, satisfy fans of the hugely popular movie.

To be sure, the musical Monty is no West Side Story (despite its macho choreography and working-class milieu) or Cabaret (with which it shares a backstage setting). The melodies, by David Yazbek (a newcomer to Broadway), are pleasant but not particularly memorable. And the performances, while fun to watch, aren't of the star-making variety.

But why quibble? The plot, lifted straight from the movie, is charming. An unemployed steel worker turns stripper (and persuades his friends to do the same) to earn the money he needs to keep seeing his adolescent son. And Terrence McNally's script is sly and crisp, posing sociological questions (primarily, are men irrelevant in a world where women can take care of themselves?), without getting bogged down in any of them.

The first act features a couple of spiffy numbers. In Big-Ass Rock, the unemployed dad (Patrick Wilson) and his overweight best friend (John Ellison Conlee) offer to help a suicidal pal finish the job. A little later, the guys sing about what they have to offer Buffalo women: Yazbek cleverly rhymes "bonus," "cojones," and "we'll show you what testosterone is". Happily, the soft-rock orchestration means it's possible to make out every word.

The highlight of the show may be the first-act closer, Michael Jordan's Ball, in which the guys, who are expert on the basketball court, build a dance routine around dribbling, passing, and shooting; Jerry Mitchell's choreography is exuberant and funny. Then, when the only black member of the troupe - who goes by the name "Horse" - sings about the sexual prowess associated with his race ("I'm what your sister and your momma's always thinking of/ they put my picture on the cover of the book of love"), the show seems headed for cliche-land. But in the second act, all is forgiven - Horse turns out to be a mouse, and two of the boys - including the one who had been suicidal - fall in love with each other.

The producers appeared to have packed the house with enthusiasts - the twentysomethings in the balcony were cheering a bit more wildly than (even the few star turns by Kathleen Freeman, as the gang's brassy piano player) required. They needn't have bothered; this show can stand on its own three feet. Indeed, the critic's usual admonition - "Run, don't walk, to see..." - isn't required here. Since there's only one thing in the world as popular as pussies, The Full Monty could run as long as Cats.

'The Full Monty': Eugene O' Neill Theatre, New York (00 1 212 239 6200), booking to 14 Jan

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