THEATER | Theater Latté Da goes “The Full Monty” in a polished production at the Ordway

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This weekend, it was brave for the Guthrie’s artistic director Joe Dowling to take the stage for the first time in decades—but as acts of onstage courage go, Dowling’s paled in comparison to what I saw on Sunday, when six actors, in front of a senior-heavy crowd, went completely naked at 4 p.m. in downtown St. Paul. Now that’s dedication to your craft.

The actors were starring in Theater Latté Da’s production of The Full Monty, a musical—which opened on Broadway in 2000—based on the 1997 film. The disrobing is the climax and conclusion of the story, which concerns six laid-off industrial workers in Buffalo, New York (relocated from Sheffield, England, where the film was set). Despondent and in need of cash, the workers decide to mount an amateur strip show in which they’ll outdo the Chippendales by going “the full monty” and taking it all off.

The movie is a warmhearted comedy classic, and its broader elements translate well to the musical stage. The Latté Da cast members, led by Joshua James Campbell and Zach Curtis, are appealing and polished, if a little less schlumpy than their onscreen counterparts. The book by Terrence McNally lifts several of the best lines and funniest situations from the film, and they earned frequent chuckles from the Sunday matinee crowd. Stealing the show was Wendy Lehr, who brings perfect comic timing to her role as the jaded veteran pianist who plays for the men.

the full monty, playing through november 8 at the ordway center for the performing arts. for tickets ($29-$34) and information, see ordway.org.

Compared to the film, though, where the musical is most conspicuously lacking is in the human dimension. This is in part due to the casting—Campbell comes across as a very conventional leading man, in contrast to the scrawny, desperate quality Robert Carlyle brought to the film—but it’s mostly due to the fact that the musical’s characters have to win our empathy through a set of second-act ballads and heartfelt conversations that are, compared to the antic comedy that fills the first act, frankly boring. David Yazbek, who wrote the music and lyrics, shines with rapid-fire wordplay in the funny numbers, but his ballads are tedious. When Campbell was forced into falsetto to declaim his love for his son, I cringed. Musical theater is a highly stylized version of reality, which is not to say that it can’t be a vessel for emotional truth, but it can be awkward when it tries to get gritty. Such is the case here.

At its best, the musical version of The Full Monty plays like a good sitcom—an association that’s begged by the ba-dum-bum musical cues that fill transitions between scenes. (You can almost see the exterior establishing shots.) Theater vets will appreciate the production’s deft professionalism, and infrequent theatergoers will find the show completely accessible. More adventurous audience members may find themselves tempted to stop in at the 331 Club to shake their moneymakers at an amateur burlesque night. I don’t think the impassive elderly man who sat to my left will be among them…but as The Full Monty argues, people can surprise you.