ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 1997, a low-budget British movie about a group of unemployed blue-collar workers who reluctantly dance in a strip club to earn some much-needed cash became a surprise hit. Three years later, the story – moved to Buffalo, N.Y. – was transformed into a musical by David Yazbek and Terrence McNally.
“The Full Monty” is now playing at Albuquerque Little Theatre, ably directed by artistic director Henry Avery. This is a daring choice for a family community theater like ALT. The very first scene centers on a gay dancer who strips down to practically nothing, driving the women in the strip club crazy. While “The Full Monty” is unquestionably ribald, it is also a tender and sympathetic comedy, and Avery manages the intricate balancing act with masterful aplomb.
The center of the story is Jerry, a divorced and unemployed steelworker desperate to earn child support so he can continue to see his child. The play is ultimately about the emasculation of macho men, and how the feminization of men isn’t so bad after all. Dave, Jerry’s best friend, is also unemployed and unwilling or unable to sleep with his patient and loving wife. The most successful relationship is the one developing between the formerly hetero laborers Ethan and Malcolm. When Jerry gets cold feet on the day of the performance, it’s actually his kid Nathan who encourages him to go through with the strip show, even though half the crowd is made up of gay men and not only women, as Jerry expected.
The best number is also the most controversial. An aging black man nick-named Horse limps into the audition, barely able to walk, let alone dance. Yet as he begins to sing “Big Black Man” he slowly warms up, revealing an ability to sing and dance like James Brown. As his name and the title of the song suggest, Yazbek is playing with just about every African-American stereotype you can think of. Hasani Olujimi is excellent as Horse.
While it turns out that Horse is not as well-endowed as his name implies, he is cast for his obvious talent. Ethan, on the other hand, can neither sing nor dance but exposes himself to the auditors as they are ready to let him go; and because the name Horse would have been more appropriate to him, he is cast. As you can see this is a risqué show, yet it conforms to an almost formulaic comic structure, rather like a prime time sitcom.
Yazbek’s music is quite hummable, especially under the musical direction of William Williams and H.B. Williams; this is the first time ALT has used a live orchestra, as far as I know, and it really lifts the show. The cast is great, although some singers are better than others. Best of all was Stephanie Larragoite, who not only sings beautifully but was a riot as the hippie pianist Jeanette.
“The Full Monty” is playing through June 17 at ALT, 224 San Pasquale in Old Town. Go to albuquerquelittletheatre.org or call 242-4750 to make reservations.