The Full Monty -- the marquee Theatre Aspen production for summer 2014, now through August 9 -- careens from laugh-out-loud funny to screaming hilarity with a cast that sings up a high-desert storm.
The Full Monty is of course based on the classic movie of the same name set in working-class England and built around the big reveal at the end, when the unemployed blue-collar boys in the chorus famously show off the family jewels. By the time that moment arrived on opening night here at the Hurst Theatre, an immensely talented cast had the audience by the cojones -- there's no other way to put it -- and I had buried my early misgivings about a comedy so broad it nearly forgot to be funny in the opening scenes.
With screaming bimbos and a clichéd Chippendale male striptease, the show starts so far over the top I feared it might never find its way back to earth. Then Malcolm, played by Ben Liebert, appears mid-suicide in a red car pumping carbon monoxide into the caboose. Irony -- heretofore as scarce as jobs in Buffalo, where the play is set--shows up like a loaded Camelback at high altitude, and from there The Full Monty goes full-throttle.
Directed by Mark Martino, the director of Les Miserables, last summer's smash in Aspen, this production comes with a cast that creeps up on you until you start to fall hard (pardon the expression) for a bunch of down-and-out, out-of-work guys in Buffalo. As in Les Miz, the singing is impeccable and often transcendent -- a trait that has become a calling card at Theatre Aspen, with a big assist from David Dyer, who is becoming an Aspen musical treasure.
In the lead as Jerry Lukowski, Tally Sessions brings a beautiful mix of levity leavened by longing, and his unexpected high register was truly a high point opening night. Dane Agostinis does the heavy emotional lifting in the show, and he's more than good enough to give shame a good name as he provides some of the funniest and poignant moments in the show. James Ludwig, who plays the former boss and new dance director of the male strippers, manages to be a hilarious foil and a gifted physical comedian.
Since we are literally talking balls-to-the-wall comedy here, we can't forget Spencer Plachy running into walls by chanelling Donald O'Connor -- and then, convincingly, falling in love with another man -- or Randy Donaldson as the cast member with both a bad hip and the badness of James Brown.
But we would be remiss if we did not single out two standout women in the cast: Michele Ragusa and Mary Stout. They both steal every scene we're lucky enough to see them in, always in a way that is equally randy and smart without ever seeming self-conscious. Ragusa gets to show real emotional depth necessary to make the play real, and Stout's performance as the piano player who has seen it all -- albeit 50 years ago -- creates a laugh track that pulses throughout the whole show. Mary Stout is a comic genius who makes every bit seem effortless: she is so good she gives world-weariness a facelift.
Watching this play was different for me because I could not stop watching the unfiltered glee of most of the women in the audience. This is a show about men for women -- and women in Aspen of all ages loved it. At the end of the day, at the end of the night, there's nothing funnier than a naked man shaking his thang in desperate times.