Buffalo Dancers

It turns out that a bunch of unemployed, working-class joes from Buffalo, New York, can hold their own in the rarefied world of musical theater. In Terrence McNally and David Yazbek's The Full Monty, steelworkers storm the stage -- and man, oh, man, can they tear up the boards.

Based on the terrific British film of the same name, The Full Monty tells the unlikely tale of a handful of unemployed hometown men who put on a strip show to make some quick cash. Of course, the story's been relocated from England, but it seems to be doing just fine in its American digs.

Tough and loud, the show opens with a Chippendale-style stripper and some screaming ladies, all wives of our dead-broke, out-of-luck heroes who can't find jobs. Meanwhile, the poor blokes are at the union hall, waiting on unemployment checks. Stomping their way through "Scrap," they sing their hard-luck story. With the plant closed, now they're nothing but scrap. Jerry Mitchell's brawny choreography captures the ugly grace of this world. There's no real dancing, just a lot of slamming out the beat. Even ordinary folding metal chairs make music when the men bang on them.

Skinny Jerry (Christian Anderson) has trouble times two. Not only has he lost his job, but he's about to lose joint custody of his son if he can't cough up some child support. His hefty pal Dave (Eric Leviton) isn't doing much better. He feels like such a loser that he can't bring himself to make love to his wife. The two sneak into the male strip club to spy on the women and get even more demoralized when they overhear the ladies gossiping about them. Down but not out, Jerry resolves to improve his situation and decides to put on a strip show featuring the homegrown men of Buffalo.

The funniest scenes -- and the most tender -- happen during auditions and rehearsals. Learning the fine art of stripping turns out to be harder than it looks. But the real heart of the story centers around what makes a man feel worthy and sexually attractive once his identity has been shaken to the core. Songs like "Big Black Man" and "The Goods" capture our protagonists' anxieties with wit, muscle and terrific turns of irony uncommon in the musical theater.

Carrying off this story is a charismatic cast of powerful singers, directed with fiery vigor by Jack O'Brien (who was nominated for a Tony when the show opened on Broadway). Together they make this world utterly real. Anderson's Jerry, a lean wire of a man, sings with an edgy roar. Leviton's Dave makes a perfect foil for his rough friend; his big tender heart resonates in Leviton's rich voice. And Jane Connell as Jeanette, the accompanist who helps the men create a show, is a real treat. But then, so is the entire supporting cast, most notably Milton Craig Nealy as Horse, and Christine Hudman as Vicki Nichols, the wife who loves to shop.

In the hands of the much-celebrated McNally, The Full Monty actually gains focus in its new incarnation. And Yazbek's big-hearted songs add guts, soul and kick-ass energy to the production. Rarely has a story translated so well to the language of musical theater. The Full Monty is a terrific surprise of a show.

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Lee Williams