The Full Monty
At the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Evanston—The 20-year history of the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre is one of the heartening stories of modern Chicagoland theater, an inspiring example of a little theater that not only survived, it triumphed. From 1997 to 2018, Theatre Ubique presented quality productions, mostly musical but even Shakespeare on occasion, in two facilities on Chicago’s far north side. For two decades, artistic director Fred Anzevino performed miracles with a cramped playing area, hugely limited technical challenges, and a seating capacity of only 65.
In Chicago, Anzevino produced more than 60 shows that earned more than 60 Jeff Awards and more than 100 nominations. The theater gods, and Anzevino’s hard work, are now rewarded with a new theater that actually looks like a theater, with a brightly lit façade, 20 more seats, an interior that is positively spacious by previous standards (including a long bar), and inexpensive street parking along the Evanston side of Howard Street. So good things sometimes do happen to good people in the theater.
The new theater is being inaugurated with a first-rate production of the Broadway musical “The Full Monty.” This my third look at the musical and this was by far the most successful, its intimacy trumping the larger and more technically equipped shows I saw in the Loop and in the suburbs. Anzevino was a wizard in using every centimeter of performing space at his previous tiny theaters and he carries on the tradition in his new place, skillfully using the aisles and audience area as well as the stage to accommodate the large 16-member cast and the expanded accompanying orchestra.
“The Full Monty” is an adaptation of a 1996 British motion picture about a group of unemployed and cash-starved steel mill workers in northern England who stage a male strip show to raise money. The movie was set in the industrial city of Sheffield but the musical has been relocated to Buffalo, New York, to connect more closely with an American audience and to spare spectators those unintelligible Yorkshire accents.
The show starts by recognizing the misery of a group of men, long out of working in the only field they know. The men face vice-like financial problems brutally coupled with their loss of self esteem. The story gradually shifts into personal stories about marriages and families breaking up and two steelworkers recognizing they are gay. The show wraps up with multiple touchy feely endings that return some sense of self worth to the men, even if it means stripteasing down to total skin in front of 1,000 howling friends and neighbors and relatives. That’s what a full monty means–removing everything, including the tiny bikini bottoms that conventionally end a professional Chippendale-style strip show.
“The Full Monty” focuses on a half dozen men of assorted shapes and temperaments, all united by their need for money and a restoration of their self worth. None of them have singing or dancing experience, but by the much anticipated finale of the show, the men come through as pros, perhaps a too rapid ascendency into song and dance skills but easily enough accepted by audiences who by now are really into the show. The ultimate question is, Will the men or won’t they take it all off, in public, in front of an audience which has been promised nothing less. No spoiler alert here. Those playgoers anxious to observe what can be seen in the show’s final moment need to attend the show.
The Theo Ubique cast is a credible assemblage of Everyman-type people. There are no glamorous Hollywood hunks masquerading as jobless steelworkers. Nick Druzbanski’s Dave, one of the two nominal lead characters with Matt Frye’s Jerry, is short and paunchy. Jonathan Schwart is a prissy and scrawny looking Harold, feeling his unemployment extra hard because he was a manager caught in the carnage of the mill’s closing. He is so shamed by his loss of status that he’s lied to his wife for six months about going to work daily.
Without making a big deal out of it, the musical includes one black man, nicknamed Horse, among the unemployed. That results in the show’s most entertaining number, “Big Black Man,” led by Marc Prince, the most gifted singer and dancer in the ensemble. The female characters, like the men, are a various lot, most of them attached to the male characters. They are all well played by Emily Barnash, Janyce Caraballo, and especially Anna Dvorchak and Molly LeCaptain. The scene stealer of the show is Kate Harris, having a great time as the wisecracking rehearsal pianist. But the entire ensemble can take a justified bow—all those named above plus John Cardone, Alexander Christ, Joe Giovannetti, David Strobbe, Neil Stratman, Tyler Simone, and Sean Zielinski (an 11-year old who holds his own impressively with his elders).
Ben Lipinski (set design) and James Kolditz (lighting) combine to give the production a more varied look than we saw in the previous two theaters, resourceful as those earlier shows often were. Bill Morey’s costumes reinforce the blue color atmosphere of the musical. Choreographer Sawyer Smith creates dances that have an eye-catching swing to them without looking too professional. Jeremy Ramey is the band’s music director-pianist-arranger. The band sounds good but needs to find a better sound balance with the singers, especially early in the evening, when the instrumentalists often overpowered the vocalists. But this is a problem easily solved with additional performances and more familiarity with the theater’s acoustics.
“The Full Monty” is the first of three musicals in the new theater’s inaugural season. Upcoming next year will be “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” You can’t get a more diversified trio than that. For now Theo Ubique can bask in the success of the enlarged and enhanced new theater and the exceedingly well done and entertaining opening attraction. Every man and woman associated with the move and its first presentation should feel pretty good about themselves.
The show gets a rating of
“The Full Monty” runs through January 27 at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 721 Howard Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $39 and $44. Call 800 595 4849 or visit www.theo-u.com.
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