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Half-Full Monty

The Full Monty is heads above other recent musicals, but that's not saying much. The Tale of the Allergist's Wife is a cheeky satire of Upper West Side Jews.

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The musical version of The Full Monty is rather like the near-proverbial glass of water that, depending on your point of view, may be half full or half empty. Looked at from below -- way below -- from the vantage point of Footloose and Saturday Night Fever, it will seem easily, or easefully, half full. Seen from above, say, from the level of Oklahoma! and Follies, it is incontestably half empty.

To be sure, in an age of Frank Wildhorn musicals, wild-carded or shoehorned into the running, The Full Monty deserves sympathetic attention. Although yet another adaptation of a movie -- in this case the endearing little British film of the same title -- it has a pure source, which it does not excessively pollute. You will recall that tale of blue-collar unemployment in the north of England, where an unlikely handful of out-of-work steelworkers, idle since the closing of the mills, takes a leaf from a traveling Chippendale's show, male striptease to which the town's wives and daughters are riotously flocking.

The group, which includes a mama's-boy fatso and the men's better-educated but now similarly jobless factory foreman, wonders how to rival, with unsexy bodies and without showbiz know-how, the professional stripper-dancers. But as it turns out, the pros strip only to the G-string; the amateurs, however, will bare everything -- or, as they say in England but not in Buffalo, whereto the musical transposes the action, the full monty.

It might be supposed that poverty and desperation in Sheffield and Buffalo are, apart from semantic differences, pretty much the same. But a small, British, nonmusical working-class movie is very different from a lavish Broadway musical. It thrives on the quaint regional dialect, the class differences (as between worker and foreman), and the passion for soccer that allows for frenzied shenanigans. The unemployed Buffalonians, however great their love of the Bills, do not stage earnest but clumsy football matches with comic results.

The looks of such a film can be touchingly drab; the actors can appear endearingly amateurish. The Broadway musical must have sets to fill a large stage, choreography to lift the hearts, songs sung and danced to with expertise by an attractive cast to justify the steep ticket prices. Amateurishness meant to be felt for rather than merely laughed at is just about the hardest thing for a Broadway musical to tackle. That the show works even as well as it does is more of an achievement than most people will realize.

The credit for that goes partly to Terrence McNally, the adapter, who has done a workmanlike job but for some facile jokes and the sneaking in of an overtly homosexual element that while pleasing some may alienate others. It was smart to pick a pop composer, David Yazbek, a newcomer to Broadway. The music sounds like most of today's rock: simplistic, with the first few songs seemingly hammering in a mere four or five notes, but just what the younger audiences, which the show needs, will feel at home with. Yazbek's lyrics are rather better.

The general smartness is attributable largely to the director, Jack O'Brien, a canny treader of fine lines. Thus John Arnone's clever sets, jazzily lighted by Howell Binkley, are on the cusp between showy and unpretentious; Robert Morgan's costumes are likably trashy; and Jerry Mitchell's choreography is inventive yet, by and large, not beyond the reach of determined amateurs. Above all, O'Brien keeps the show moving nimbly, provides delightful directorial grace notes, and has cast impeccably.

Patrick Wilson is a well-sung (that is the word) and down-to-earth leading man, and Lisa Datz and Emily Skinner play two very different but equally persuasive wives. Romain Frugé expertly merges the comic and the touching. Since all the actors in this show do so well and blend into a seamless ensemble, I will not dumbfound you with a further long list of names, but must single out André De Shields for his quicksilver dancing and moving performance.

For all this, Monty is not memorable. To revert to that half-filled glass of water, it is hard to say whom it satisfies: Those parched for good musicals may need something more to quench their thirst; those not especially thirsty may seek a brew headier than water to quaff.

Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife is an amiable but not unstinging satire on Upper West Side Jewish foibles and follies: the culture-vulture frenzy of middle-aged Marjorie Taub, having nothing to do; the unabated vitality and continued activity of her semi-retired allergist husband, Ira, which leaves Marjorie too much alone; the peskiness of Frieda, Marjorie's crotchety and bowel-movement-fixated mother, who lives in the same building, which is too close for comfort. Marjorie is pulled out of her comic funk over the death of her therapist by the unexpected arrival of Lee, a mystery woman who seems to have done everything, met everyone, and can drop more arty, intellectual, and social references from seeming firsthand experience than Marjorie can even dream of.

Lee affects everybody except Mohammed, the young Iraqi doorman whom Marjorie is instructing in the great books, especially those of Hermann Hesse, her favorite. With sassy benevolence, Lee initiates the Taubs into everything from gourmet cookery to polymorphous sex, and turns the family topsy-turvy. Last season, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the only thing the play needed was a stronger ending; this one is scarcely different and no better. Still, with this work, Busch has successfully made the transition from downtown to mainstream, and the production, savvily directed by Lynne Meadow, does him full justice.

Santo Loquasto's set is one of those you immediately want to move into, Ann Roth's costumes are as characterizing as the sharpest dialogue, and Christopher Akerlind's lighting is intimate and caressing. Linda Lavin's way with Marjorie's screechy words, manic movements, and befuddled mugging is clowning at its peak; Tony Roberts's Ira, in his bemusedly subdued way, is scarcely less funny. These two can break you up without saying a word. As Frieda, Shirl Bernheim is a masterly blend of the infuriating and the pixieish. The glamorous Michele Lee is equally adept at sophisticated chatter and sensual seduction; Anil Kumar is the doorman you want to take home to your building manager, if not to Mother. So go and enjoy.


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