Playwright: music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Terrence McNally. At: Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; www.kokandyproductions.com; $38. Runs through: April 12
Upstarts triumphing over adversity against seemingly impossible odds are a favorite theme of audiences in the United States, a country founded upon just such audacity. Our applause is even greater when the project involves straying outside conventional gender roles, but what we most approve are the empathy and acceptance engendered by venturing beyond comfort zones.
Our story begins with marital arrangements in the industrial town of Buffalo, New York, in disorder: the unemployed men of the now-closed steel mills do household chores, while the womenfolk, whose retail positions at the local mall are unaffected by the economical upheaval, draw the paychecks and enjoy the privileges that come therewithspecifically, weekly girls-nights-out devoted to ogling male striptease artists. When a divorced father lagging in his child-support payments notes the monetary rewards of baring booty, it inspires a scheme for restoring the solvencynot to mention moraleof himself and his displaced comrades.
This last factor is what distinguishes Kokandy director John D. Glover's approach to Terrence McNally's book for this musical, adapted from the non-musical film. Most productions tend to concentrate on the premise of maleswhom even sympathetic peers describe as "too skinny, too fat, too shy, too dumb, too old and too ugly"desperately clinging to their preconceived identities as they reluctantly surrender to harsh necessity. The emphasis this time, however, is on the erosion of prejudices impeding the progress of husbands and fathers who refuse the available jobs out of stubborn vanity. As the night draws near when the would-be ecdysiasts will have to make good on their promise to deliver their customers the daring "full monty," they are forced to join together in fraternal intimacy revealing more than just their, um, Richard the Thirds. They may report to work as mall security guards the morning following, but they will do so with a pride invulnerable to mere circumstance.
In the meantime, there's still plenty of fun in the prospect of amateur dancers instructed in burlesque bump-and-grind by their former factory supervisor to piano accompaniment supplied by a geriatric vaudevillian arriving with salty show-biz stories ranging from Las Vegas to Atlantic City. On opening night, the vocals on David Yazbek's jazz-based score were a bit hesitant ( excepting Colette Todd, Randolph Johnson and George Toles, who belt for the rafters from the first breath and never let up ), but by the time act one closes with "Michael Jordan's Ball," our parable is stepping briskly toward its happy endingin every sense.