“Full Monty” offers hope, laughter and resiliency

October 18, 2009.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

It no longer feels right to consider Theater Latté Da a small theater. The little gang that formed around Peter Rothestein and Denise Prosek 12 years ago is not doing musical theater on par with any organization – large or small – in the Twin Cities.

Latté Da’s production of “The Full Monty,” which opened Friday, fills the Ordway’s McKnight Theatre with a spirit of hope It is by turns raucous, sweet, ribald and charming; and as good art does, the mundane acts of common folk are elevated to heroism. Played out on Rick Polenek’s warehouse set design, the musical testifies to human reilience. Playwright Terrence McNally and composer David Yazbek create a subtext on the value of human bodies – with their inadequacies and our fear of exposure – in this economy. When the men take it all off in the show’s climax, there’s a freedom as if they have cast off society’s requirements for worth.

This Masculine, lunch-pail musical has a blunt style – coarse, profane, earthy. There isn’t anything pretty in Buffalo, NY, particularly the bruised machismo of men who are dispatched from the local factory. McNally parlays those wounded psyches into dramatic set pieces: divorced tahter trying to keep it together with his son; plus-size buddy so down on his image that he can’t make the beast with two backs with his wife; middle manager whose sense of worth goes no further than his paycheck.

All it takes is the spark of a nakedly bold idea (stripping for dollars at a local bar) to turn this chaff of male ego into a conflagaration.

Rothstein also musters as much blue-collar ethic as a refined theater will allow. His singers are gritty, sometimes a little nasally. Michael Matthew Ferrell’s choreography reflects the heavy boots of industrial workers. Joshua James Campbell’s Jerry has the look of a 35-year-old man with a white knuckle grip on his fading high school fame. Zach Curtis has a sweet curiosity about him as Dave, the self-conscious tub who rises to the occasion. Randy Schmeling is the perfect dweeb in his windbreaker and stocking hat (thank you, costumer Kathy Kohl) and Paul Coate gives the middle-management functionary Harold Nichols a patina of self-importance over his insecurity.

Odball characters pop up along the way to freshen the humor. Wendy Lehr blends the whiskey-throated weariness of the world with an indomitable spirit as the pianist who accompanies the men. Reggie Phoenix electrifies the stage with “Big Black Men” – one of the show’s riotous moments – and Joey Clark revives us as Ethan, the man with great qualifications for stripping.

“Full Monty” is Latté Da’s most ambitious effort to date and in every way the ambition is fulfilled.