Trust Me, Cowboy, This Ain't It

Optimists and pessimists differ about the glass being half-full or half-empty. But a graven pessimist would ask, “What glass?” The same applies to the Old Globe’s world-premiere musical, The Full Monty, based on the popular movie. Only one question drives the three-hour-long show: will six unemployed millworkers strip “all the way”? Well, yes, and…no. For some the Monty will be, at best, half-full, for others half-empty.

A second question lurks beneath the first: will the heretofore bashful Old Globe Theatre permit male frontal nudity on its conservative stage? To answer this one, the graven pessimist might ask, “What Monty?”

Aided by actors in the aisles cheering the performers (and audience) on, and aided, I swear — though I can’t prove it — by a sound design, like the kind movies use, with built-in audience responses, The Full Monty got a rip-roaring standing ovation from first-nighters. And it does, with coast-to-coast revising, have the makings of a hit. But right now it must rank as one of the most shameless, manipulative musicals ever written.

The movie’s built on character, grim working-class conditions in Northern England, and realism. It immerses you in the grit of industrial life. That a sextet of workers would conceive of performing in birthday suits shows the degree of their desperation.

The musical resets the story in Buffalo, New York, but refuses to “go all the way” in showing the lives of the unemployed. John Arnone’s flexible set — red steel girders and corrugated flats — has a cartoonish, Dick Tracy quality. Even the attempted suicide’s played heavily for laughs. In effect, Monty gives us picturesque poverty, glossing over the pain within. It’s as if the musical knows that people who can afford tickets don’t want reminders of America’s underclass. Best to treat unemployed workers as potential beefcake, even if there’s no meat on their table.

Like most blockbuster movies and bestseller novels, the musical relies on tricks and slick pacing. Director Jack O’Brien really knows how to make a story feel like it’s moving, even if it doesn’t go anywhere. And Terrence McNally, one of our most distinguished playwrights (Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Love! Valor! Compassion!), can punch out jokes with assembly-line regularity. Here, however, both turn their theatrical savvy to sheer commercialism. They’re so obsessed with entertaining us, moment to moment, they leap to the lowest common denominator, including an encyclopedia of phallic puns and references. And while they seem to debunk stereotypes, as in the song “Big Black Man,” they rely on the stereotype to carry the scene.

They could cut a half hour from Monty and not miss it. The musical takes 90 minutes to bring the six males together. It’s odd that, given this amount of time, we still know little about them, other than their reactions to the idea of stripping. (Does the creative team assume we’ve seen the movie, or that we’re just too shallow to handle complex characterization?) The first hour of Act Two is more of same. Then the show takes off — well, not literally. The final half hour plays like a different piece; some honest emotions emerge, only to get subordinated, like everything else, to the Question.

David Yazbek’s score is more serviceable than special. He’s got some lively numbers — like “Big Ass Rock,” which describes how “friends” will help a man commit suicide — but no tunes you hum on the way home. And the production’s two show-stoppers result from the performers, not the songs. When Horse auditions for the team, Andre de Shields (one of the stars of the Old Globe’s Play On!) does moves that would make the great James Brown envious. And Act Two opens with “Jeanette’s Blues,” a litany of showbiz horrors sung by veteran Kathleen Freeman, who may have lived each one.

Ours has been the Age of the Spectacle Musical: slick shows, with negligible content using a gimmick to bring in audiences. It makes sense, in this climate, to create a musical in which people make a spectacle of themselves. The Full Monty has a built-in hook, but that’s all. I can’t imagine audiences sitting through any ten minutes of this thing without the lure of men going all the way. The Question — will they? — is the only edge the show has. And the Answer will come as a relief to some, and turn others into graven pessimists.

Celebration of the Lizard, a musical based on the Doors’ opus, never sets “the night on fire.” Much of the Doors’ music explores uncharted territory. Lizard, by contrast, is numbingly familiar. The plot, the characters, the situations are so derivative, so pseudo, and, frankly, so pretentious they’re laughable. If the performers affixed their tongues in cheek, this show could be pure camp.

Call it the Tommy Syndrome. When you convert the works of a rock group into theater you move from the infinite to the finite. Songs that exist in your endless imagination shrink to a specific shape. There’s Tommy, okay. And there’s the Gypsy, mmm-hmmm, but shouldn’t Uncle Ernie be more, um…. Same with the Doors. How can you give “Light My Fire” a theatrical size worthy of the song?

At the Rep, a character called the Stranger shaman-dances around a smoldering campfire, from which red sparkles pop. Then other actors emerge, singing a choral rendition — choral? The staging has the same relation to the song that a postcard does to the Grand Canyon.

The music, throughout, is oddly watered-down. Only two songs get a fair shake: “The End,” a harrow of feeling sung by Alysa Lobo; and “Tell All the People,” with which Danny Peck brings down the house. But “The End” gets sung for the demise of Antonio, a tyrant who doesn’t merit such an elegy. Peck encourages everyone to “follow me down,” then dies. In these and other instances, the songs and the plot bumper car each other.

The plot’s a precipitous thud. We’re in post-apocalyptic L.A., where “the brutal streets are here to stay,” and all that’s left are “fists and blood.” The city’s “ruled from above by an unseen fascist regime.” Our hero, a sensitive guy who doesn’t “wanta kill any-more” — he just clobbered a cop — flees the city and finds himself at a crossroads where, he learns, “Once you’re past the crossroads, there’s no going back.” Whoa! Undaunted, our hero seeks a better way. After all, he shouts, “The future is all we have left!”

Compared to this tripe, Escape From New York’s a work of genius. But enough. Our hero and his followers will “break on through to the other side,” whether we care one whit or not.

Lizard is too long, way too wordy, and the songs got shoved into slots that don’t fit. One of the strangest things is that, for a musical, the production’s so one-note. Everything’s an assault, from the author’s fustian language (imagine Sam Shepard’s prose on ugly pills), to the stagey stage combat, to tough-talking, gouge-your-eyes-out acting, and to Sam Woodhouse’s direction. This latter’s a big surprise. Woodhouse’s gifts of humor and irony, which have ignited many a show, are completely absent here.

A musical based on the Doors? As the Queen of the Highway tells our hero, “Trust me, cowboy, this ain’t it.”

Monty and Lizard may, or may not, work out their problems. In the meantime, one of the best shows of the year concludes its brief run this weekend. The Renaissance Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot is the funniest, most stimulating theater in San Diego. Tired of tricks and pretension? Treat yourself to the real thing.

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