Reflecting tough economic times, “The Full Monty” is a play about hope, and believing in yourself.

Theatre Winter Haven's production of "The Full Monty" is not only very funny, but surprisingly relevant to the current state of our economy. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

WINTER HAVEN — In the opening moments of Theatre Winter Haven’s production of the comedy/musical “The Full Monty,” you might presume the show’s primary appeal arises from the fact that, yes, there will be male strippers on stage.
The play by Terrence McNally, based on the Academy Award-winning movie, even opens with a group of women roaring with approval during Girl’s Night Out at a nightclub in downtown Buffalo, N.Y., when a handsome, muscular male stripper prances on the stage.
And even before the show began, the theater’s director, Normal Small, joked about the theme, noting that “It is ‘The Full Monty,’ and the people in the front row didn’t pay any more for their tickets, either.” He later noted that the winner of a raffle would get a special prize: a bikini thong with “Full Monty” printed on it.
“And it’s autographed!” Small said, to great applause.
“The Full Monty,” though, manages to far exceed its initial sex appeal, and of all the many hit plays that could have been chosen by the theater at 210 Cypress Garden Boulevard in downtown Winter Haven, this one is as topical and relevant as it gets.
Although ostensibly a comedy, the play hits a surprisingly strong and poignant chord in the beginning, as a group of laid off factory workers complain to their union rep about how tough it’s been finding another job.
“I’ve been out of work for 18 months,” one of the men grumbles. “I got a mortgage to pay, and kids to support.”
These steelworkers proceed to sing about how they feel like “Scrap,” a song about how difficult it is coping with long-term unemployment. Considering the current state of the economy, lyrics like “I want a job, I want to feel like a person, instead of a slob” hit home in a surprisingly powerful way.
At a time when Florida’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average, and the state lost 22,000 jobs in August, “The Full Monty” feels less like a comedy about sex and stripping than it does about something else: self-worth.
It focuses on Jerry Lukowski, who is so short on both cash and prospects that he could lose custody of his son to his ex-wife, and Dave Bukatinski, who is having problems in his marriage. Depressed about his job situation, Dave has left his wife Georgie feeling unwanted, so she decides to join her friends in celebrating a night on the town by attending a Chippendales performance during Girl’s Night out.
Jerry and Dave get to meet the stripper, and they’re intrigued that women would shell out $50 each to see him do his striptease act. That’s when Jerry gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea: why not do their own strip show for the women, but one featuring regular blue collar types, not some buff muscle boy.
There’s only one problem: Jerry is too thin to be a hot stripper, and Dave is overweight. Plus they don’t know how to dance. Who is going to pay good money to see them on stage?
But with custody of his son on the line, and not to mention his own self-esteem, Jerry plows forward with the idea, recruiting a lonely, suicidal security guard at the steel mill, Malcolm, and the mill’s former foreman, Harold Nichols. Harold has been taking ballroom dancing lessons, and he reluctantly agrees to become their choreographer. They decide to hold auditions for two more male strippers to be a part of the act, but let’s just say that with so many unemployed middle aged men in Buffalo, they don’t exactly lure in what Chippendales routinely has to offer.
In addition to the play’s surprisingly current theme of the challenge of staying optimistic in tough economic times, it also touches on another issue that makes the show even more endearing. While it’s true that the women swoon at the buff male stripper from Chippendales, it quickly becomes clear that’s not what they really want. As Georgie points out, it would be so nice to feel loved by Dave again — to get as little as a nice warm hug. “The Full Monty” is about people with average looks and average lives, who are not particularly exceptional in any way …. and who discover there is a lot about themselves to like and be content with. Accepting yourself and feeling good about who you are is one of the show’s central, and most appealing, themes. People can’t always change who they are, but they sure can make the best of what they’ve got. And sometimes that provides them a lot more than they initially thought.
Beautifully paced between hilarious comedic moments and some top-notch songs, Theatre Winter Haven’s production of “The Full Monty” is as feel-good as it gets. The more human, and vulnerable, the characters seem, the easier it is to relate to them — and to root for them.
It helps to have performers like Jay T. Becker as the constantly scheming, never quit Jerry, Zach Wasson as the stumble bum Dave, and Jose D. S. Rodriquez as the bewildered choreographer Harold with a seemingly impossible task on his hands. They perform a glorious balancing act between mining the dialogue for all its comedic potential, while at the same time making the characters seem all too human, and familiar, like the guys next door. It definitely doesn’t hurt that the entire cast knows how to belt out a song with gusto.
Theatre can be a wonderful form of diversion in stressful times. “The Full Monty” manages a great feat of putting a mirror up to our current challenging times, while still making us feel, just as the characters do, that there’s great reasons to believe in yourself, and keep up the faith.
“The Full Monty” runs through Oct. 9. To learn more, call the box office at 863-294-SHOW, email TWHTickets@aol.com, or log on to www.TheatreWinterhaven.com.

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