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PTC’s ‘The Full Monty’ lets it all hang out

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From left to right: Horse (Reggie Whitehead), Harold (Ronald Brown), Ethan (Ira Kramer), Jeanette (A.J. Mooney), Jerry (Daniel Kennedy), Dave (Ben Layman) and Malcolm (Dominick Varney Wood) struggle with the men's inability to learn how to dance in this scene from Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “The Full Monty.” From left to right: Horse (Reggie Whitehead), Harold (Ronald Brown), Ethan (Ira Kramer), Jeanette (A.J. Mooney), Jerry (Daniel Kennedy), Dave (Ben Layman) and Malcolm (Dominick Varney Wood) struggle with the men's inability to learn how to dance in this scene from Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “The Full Monty.” (photo credit © Magnus Stark, 2017)

Comic musical offers big laughs, big songs and big … feelings.

BANGOR – Things are getting steamy at the Bangor Opera House.

For the final show of the 2016-2017 season, Penobscot Theatre Company looks (and sometimes stares) at the lives of six laid-off steelworkers in “The Full Monty,” directed and choreographed by Ethan Paulini. The musical was adapted from the movie of the same name, with book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Performances run through July 9.

The show isn’t coy - you know where this is going right from the start, as Georgie (Brianne Beck) introduces us to Buddy (Zach Robbins), a Chippendales dancer. As the clothes come off, the ladies of the cast work themselves into a frenzy.

Elsewhere, Georgie’s husband Dave (Ben Layman) and his friend Jerry (Daniel Kennedy) find themselves laid off from their factory. To make matters worse, it’s looking like Jerry’s ex-wife Pam (Aimee Gerow) is moving on with stable breadwinner Teddy (Allen Adams). 

(Editor’s note: Allen Adams is employed by this publication. In fact, he’s the one writing this editor’s note.) 

If Jerry doesn’t find money soon, he’s going to lose joint custody of his son Nathan (Drew Campbell). Inspired by an encounter with Buddy, Jerry sets out to recruit a team of local talent to put on a show and make some fast cash.

After recruiting depressed caretaker Malcolm (Dominick Varney), the guys look for someone with dance experience. Former boss Harold (Ronald L. Brown) seems an unlikely choice, but he and his wife Vicky (Heather Astbury-Libby) are avid ballroom students. The men hold auditions with the help of Jeanette (A.J. Mooney), a pianist who’s seen it all. There they recruit Ethan (Ira Kramer), a dumb but loveable “Singin’ in the Rain” enthusiast, and Noah (Reggie Whitehead), an older gentleman with a suggestive nickname.

Everything seems to be going great until Jerry promises that their strip show will go all the way. Are the guys comfortable enough with who they are to bare everything on stage?

“The Full Monty” feels even more urgent than the premise might suggest. Labor is in the spotlight again in America, and a growing number of manufacturing communities in our own state have had to become creative about sustaining themselves. Perhaps it’s because of this that you recognize the people that you’re watching, and you realize quickly that this is more a story about growth and survival than it is about the novelty of amateur exotic dance. There is no clearly-defined antagonist in the story; everyone’s just trying to do the best they can as victims of circumstance.

The strong, familiar characters can only shine through a solid cast – one that PTC provides. Kennedy plays perpetual man-child Jerry with charisma; he shines in scenes where he gets to be a goofball. Layman is resoundingly genuine as Jerry’s foil, Dave, and the score showcases his vocal versatility. Varney not only delivers many of the funniest lines with veteran precision, he also delivers on one of the most technically demanding songs in the show, “You Walk with Me,” a performance equal parts studied control and aching vulnerability.

Whitehead brings a LOT of energy, especially to his number “Big Black Man,” and without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say he’ll surprise every audience. Kramer has some tender moments in between all the pratfalls, and he seems to relish his role - no ifs, ands or buts. Lastly, Brown’s take on Harold’s droll humor is a nice contrast to his bumbling underlings as the oft-put-upon husband and middle-man. The script gives each character a way to break past expectation in moments of depth and levity, and these principal actors get to demonstrate lots of range.

While the show largely focuses on the stories of the men, there are great performances from the female cast too. Every single actress is a triple threat, which makes numbers like the excellent “The Goods” stand out. Mooney’s comedic timing is impeccable; her many talents are featured in a show-stopping solo. Beck and Astbury-Libby both have phenomenal voices, highlighted by the poignant “You Rule My World” reprise. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of them, but they still provide the heart of their respective scenes. And with Jerry being our protagonist, it seems like we should root against the person trying to keep him from his son, but Gerow plays Pam with such fire and sincerity that you can’t be mad at her.

The formidable ensemble knows never to waste a line or throw away a moment. Robbins’ Buddy could have been merely beefcake-y caricature, but instead he feels developed and serves admirably as the catalyst for the rest of the action. Campbell is the only child in the production, but holds his own beside seasoned talent. Grace Livingston-Kramer, Cory Osborne, Alekzander Sayers, Charisse Shields, Gaylen Smith and Michelle Wilke each offer a strong presence. Of particular note: Smith’s union leader and his meticulous “audition,” as well as Sayers’ shape-shifting through a bevy of small but very different roles.

The score charges through a variety of styles. From fast and loud to soft and sweet, the pit delivers every time. Music direction is provided by Phil Burns (also on keyboards), who manages a tight unit with Joseph Dupuis (Guitar/Bass), Carl Ferm (Woodwinds), Tom Libby (Drums), Lori Wingo (Trumpet), and Jim Winters (Trombone).

Tricia Hobbs’ set provides both form and function, in the shell of a once-imposing mill. It represents a variety of locations with a selection of versatile pieces, mirroring the careworn, but still strong personalities of Buffalo. Kevin Koski’s costumes capture both the aesthetic of the displaced workers and the women-about-town effortlessly. Christopher Annas-Lee’s lighting design makes good use of newer ultra-bright, highly-saturated LEDs to set the mood. The final number brings all of these elements together for a visual treat.

“The Full Monty” is funny, which you may expect, and it’s poignant, which you may not. Most impressive is the quality represented in this line from the show: “Anybody can take their clothes off. But to do it on a stage, with hundreds and hundreds of people looking at you, yeah, that takes something.” Good theater already puts actors in a position of vulnerability, but this production adds another layer (and then takes it off). There’s something very personal about this show, and it resonates across the entire cast, right out to the audience, who get to enjoy the relief of letting it all go.

If you’re looking for something fun, sweet and full of energy, “The Full Monty” will give you the whole package. They’ve got the goods.

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