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Putting it on to take it all off

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Dominick Varney as Malcolm Macgregor in Penobscot Theatre's production of "The Full Monty." Dominick Varney as Malcolm Macgregor in Penobscot Theatre's production of "The Full Monty." (photo credit © Magnus Stark, 2017)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An inside look at Penobscot Theatre’s “The Full Monty”

BANGOR – In recent years, Penobscot Theatre Company has started a new tradition. Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport has introduced the idea of a surprise seventh show to bring the PTC season to a close. Previous productions in this slot have included “The Rocky Horror Show” and last year’s “Rock of Ages.”

This season’s surprise offering – which runs from June 15 through July 9 at the Bangor Opera House - is “The Full Monty.” Based on the 1997 movie of the same name, this musical – with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Terrence McNally – tells the story of a group of out-of-work Buffalo steelworkers who resort to some unorthodox means (i.e. stripping) in an effort to help turn their lives around.

Putting a production like this together is a massive undertaking, one that involves scores of people – a team of director and designers and a huge cast. It is also an undertaking that it has been my privilege to witness firsthand.

I’m in it, you see.

I’ve been in a position to watch this huge group of gifted artists come together in service of one singular goal – the best production of “The Full Monty” they could possibly produce. A goal that, by all appearances, has been largely attained. As of this writing, the show is just about to embark on its four-week run. In fact, by the time you read this, it might well have already opened. Heck, you might have already seen it.

But unless you’ve been there, unless you’ve been part of the process to bring such a complicated creation to life on the stage, you don’t really know what it takes to put something like this together.

So I thought I might tell you. Some of it, anyway.

The beginning

First things first: why this show? How did it land in the PTC season? Well, as it turns out that “The Full Monty” has been on Newport’s radar for a long time.

“This has been one of my all-time favorite shows ever since I first saw it,” she said.

She was living in New York City and had tickets to the show – tickets that turned out to be for a performance not long after the events of 9/11.

“It was the first thing I saw [after 9/11],” said Newport. “It was so memorable, with one of the best closing numbers I had ever seen. We all started in this place of shock, reeling from this tragic event. By the time it was over, I was swept up in this feeling, like I was part of something big, something more.

“I’ve seen multiple productions of the show since then,” she continued. “It’s well-written and touching and the music is fantastic.”

Newport went on to mention a personal connection to and deep respect for the work of playwright Terrence McNally, who wrote the book of the show. She shared a story about meeting the man while directing a production of his play “Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune.”

“McNally came to see the show opening night,” she said. “The production team got to spend this incredible night with him; he really felt like someone filled with wit and wisdom.”

PTC’s seventh show has become quite an event for the theater, something that Newport wants to continue. She has specific ideas with regards to what kinds of shows fill that slot – ideas that match up nicely with a piece like “The Full Monty.”

“The seventh show is for a party,” she said. “It’s a great way to lead into the summer. We want super fun, bright, rollicking shows that are also ambitious.”

That ambition comes at a cost, however. Productions like this one are more expensive, as they involve a much larger scale in terms of production values and cast size and any number of other things. That said, the potential rewards in terms of ticket sales are much higher as well. It’s a risk, but a calculated and worthwhile one.

Newport believes that local audiences will find plenty to like in the story being told.

“This is a story that resonates, no matter who you are,” she said. “I like stories that connect to communities. They’re a big part of what makes theater companies distinctive. I try to find the fulcrum of the audience; it’s really exciting when a show has that perspective and connects with life.

“I’m interested in stories that are ours.”

Rehearsal

This brings us to the production itself. The first readthrough – in this case, one led by director/choreographer Ethan Paulini, musical director Phil Burns and production stage manager Meredith Perry – is always an interesting experience. It’s the first chance to hear the story you’re about to undertake telling coming from the voices by whom it is going to be told. There’s a real excitement to that … and it never goes away. At least, it hasn’t in the 20-some years I’ve been doing this kind of thing.

There are 19 people in this show. That’s a big group. And while the local circle from which PTC draws many of its performers is relatively small, you might be surprised at the sheer amount of talent. As a good friend of mine and longtime patron of the arts likes to say, “Bangor’s got a deep bench.”

That deep bench is abundantly evident in this show, with talented performers up and down the cast. Big parts, small ones, in-between ones – there’s quality everywhere you look.

(Please note that I’m not including myself in any of these blanket statements. Don’t get me wrong, I’m doing fine, but I’m definitely on the lower end of this particular scale.)

Central to the show are the six gentlemen that we refer to as “the Monty Men.” This cohort of a half-dozen exceptional talents – local notables Daniel Kennedy, Ben Layman, Dominick Varney and Ira Kramer; out-of-town performers Reggie Whitehead and Ronald L. Brown – have been shining stars of grace and joy and professionalism throughout the entire experience. “The Full Monty” will fly as high as these fellows can carry it – which promises to be high indeed.

They have been the most tireless workers in a hard-working cast. They have captured the souls of the bent-not-broken men that they are portraying, finding plenty of humor and pathos along the way. Each of them has his own singular, shining - or in one case, glimmering (trust me, you’ll get this reference when the time comes) – moment where the joy is inescapable. And there’s real courage in allowing yourself to be fully revealed on stage. They’re brave enough to let it all hang out.

Paulini’s direction came fast and furious; he entered this situation with a firm idea of what he wanted this show to be. He had a clarity of vision and an enthusiasm for the piece that can’t be overstated. Plus, he has done this show numerous times in the past and brings that wealth of experience to the table as well. His demands might have been high, but the group was capable. As he himself said on more than one occasion, he couldn’t have asked for a better cast.

Paulini handled the intricacies of choreography as well, while music director Burns did his part in helping everyone sing their best song. Musicals need to look and sound precise while still striving to feel organic. That takes time and effort. A lot of it. This is the work that can feel repetitive or even dull, the stuff that can try one’s patience. But it is also the work that separates the mediocre from the good and the good from the great.

And people have done the work.

It’s not just the Monty Men, either – though they’ve done their share and then some. Over the course of four weeks, an entire ensemble came together. There are women seizing their shares of the spotlight as well; sharp, smart performances all around. Brianne Beck and Aimee Gerow find humor and heartbreak in their struggling relationships. Heather Astbury-Libby is a vocal dynamo and A.J. Mooney is a constant, delightful surprise. Charisse Shields, Grace Livingston-Kramer, Michelle Wilke – every one of them bringing something genuine into the world being created.

The other men have done their parts as well. Drew Campbell – the youngest of the bunch – has comported himself well throughout, operating at the level of the cast’s adult actors. Zach Robbins has invested months in making his character the best he can be – and you’ll get a good look at the results. Cory Osborne, Gaylen Smith, and Alek Sayers have all contributed significantly to the overall fabric of the piece.  

For a month, we gathered and spoke and sang. The show quickly sprang into shape; this allowed the director to devote time to details. Scenes and moments were honed, given the kind of direct attention that isn’t always an option with a show such as this one. The days ticked by and the show grew and the dynamic solidified; all in all, it was as painless as these processes are apt to be.

And so it went, right up until…

Tech

If you’ve ever been involved in the theater, you know what tech is. If you haven’t, well … you really have no idea.

Tech is when the scenes and songs of the show are brought together with the multitude of technical and production elements that go into a production. This is when the actors come together with the set and the lights and the costumes and the sound and the props and all of the rest of it. It is a deliberate and painstaking process; all of these disparate things need to be synchronized.

All of the designers are in the building – scenic designer Tricia Hobbs (who is also the PTC technical director); lighting designer Christopher Annas-Lee; costume designer Kevin Koski; sound designer Katie Guzzi – watching for anything and everything that might happen. They’re looking for things to fix and things to improve, keeping an eye on now while constantly considering later.

Slowly but surely, we move through the show, starting and stopping and reversing and repeating until it all fits together properly. If a light cue isn’t timed right or a microphone doesn’t work properly or a set piece interferes with a dance moment, it needs to be fixed. A show like this one has many moving parts and every cog needs to be doing its job for the big picture to be truly effective. And if I was a betting man, I’d bet big on this big picture looking and sounding great.

(Perhaps no group is more important to making that big picture happen than the backstage crew. These are the folks operating just out of sight, the ones moving set pieces and assisting in quick changes and shining spotlights and flying walls in and out. That grand musical spectacle you enjoy? None of it happens without their efforts. Unsung heroes, the lot of them.)

At the center of this maelstrom, keeping order and running the show, is stage manager Perry. All cues run through her – lights, sound, set changes, all of it. She is the central conduit, the conductor keeping everything on track. It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning – particularly when you’re also juggling knives and riding a unicycle, metaphorically speaking – but Perry unfailingly keeps it all under control.

Oh – and this is ALSO when the band comes in. Their performance needs to be folded in and the cast needs to get used to that larger, fuller sound. It’s a good crew that’s been put together – Joseph Dupuis on guitar and bass, Carl Ferm on woodwinds, Lori Wingo on trumpet and Jim Winters on trombone, with Tom Libby as the drummer and music director Burns on the keyboard – and their addition to the proceedings was a smooth one.

Hours upon hours are spent on the Opera House stage over the course of tech weekend. There’s a lot of standing and waiting and tweaking and re-tweaking. It can wear on one’s patience, to be sure. And as much as we might like each other, it’s inevitable that we’re going to trod on one another’s nerves. Those flare-ups happen and just as quickly evaporate, because even when we tick each other off, we never forget that we’re all on the same team.

And before you know it, tech is over and the pieces are in place. Which leaves just one more step.

The run

Here’s the thing – as of press time, “The Full Monty” hasn’t opened yet, though it’s fairly likely that by the time you read this, it will have.

So you have me at a bit of a disadvantage. As I write this, I don’t actually know how things have gone with opening weekend. I don’t know what the audience turnout has been or what the reaction has been. I don’t know if there have been eleventh-hour concerns of any kind.

Here’s what I do know:

I know that everyone involved in this production has given their all to ensure its success. I know that a tremendous amount of hard work has been done by the cast and the production team to make this show as good as it can be. And having spent these past weeks working alongside them, I know that they will have earned whatever accolades I (or anyone else) have bestowed upon them.

So why not check out “The Full Monty” sometime in the next few weeks? It’ll be well worth your time. I mean, sure, I’m biased - but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

(Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “The Full Monty” runs from June 15 through July 9 at the Bangor Opera House. For tickets or more information, call the box office at 942-3333 or visit the PTC website at www.penobscottheatre.org.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 June 2017 11:46

1 comment

  • Comment Link Serena Tuesday, 06 February 2018 13:54 posted by Serena

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this write-up and the rest of the
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