I and the Finnish population at large have rather different tastes in musicals.
The higher a show is on the list of Finland’s most-produced foreign musicals (more about that list here), the likelier is that I’ll dislike it. Fiddler on the Roof? Ugh. Sound of Music? Bleh. My Fair Lady? Nah. Just not for me.
So naturally, I was suspicious of The Full Monty. It’s one of Finland’s most-produced musicals of the last decade, maybe even the most produced. A silly show about men stripping. That just cannot be worth watching.
The Full Monty is a Broadway musical based on the 1997 movie, a comedy about six unemployed men forming a striptease act. The movie was a hit, but the musical only had modest success on Broadway – running from 2000 to 2002 – and an even shorter nine-month-run in the West End in 2002.
In Finland, The Full Monty had its premiere in 2002, titled Housut pois (”Pants Off”). Then another professional production in 2008. Two in 2010. 2012. 2013. Two in 2015. 2016. On top of that, countless amateur productions around the country. It’s a wonder, really, that I’ve managed to avoid it this long!
Last weekend, I saw my first production of the musical in Lahden kaupunginteatteri.
I’m not familiar with the movie, and in my experience, the musical has a light and brainless imago attached to it: they’re blue-collar guys who do amateur striptease, ha-ha. I was glad to find out that’s not everything there is to this. The musical actually discusses multiple serious issues including homophobia, body image, unemployment and a father’s right to see his child.
It also surprised me how three-dimensional the main character Jerry Lukowski is. Played by a longtime personal favourite actor, Tuukka Leppänen... Oh me, oh my.
Jerry is the driving force behind the central striptease act. He is motivated to put up the show because he needs to earn money fast or his ex-wife will sue him over unpaid child support payment, and also because the town’s women are excited about a visiting Chippendales show. Jerry is jealous and convinced the touring male dancers are all gay. So, he reasons, wouldn’t it be way better if the ladies could see real heterosexual men strip?
In short, our hero is a jerk. Homophobic and chauvinist with a side of anger management issues. Despite that, though, you can't help rooting for him. He loves his son, is resourceful and driven. You wish him to succeed. Above all, you hope he will learn some important lessons along the way.
And the way Leppänen portrays his character... I haven’t seen this – how to even describe it – genuine and real, true-to-life musical character in ages.
Musical characters are by nature larger than life. They deal with huge emotions and, when words aren’t enough, resort to singing and dancing. Musical theatre is a very unrealistic medium, so it’s hard to forget the people onstage are acting, even if they’re absolutely brilliant.
Not the case with Leppänen’s performance. It’s not often you encounter a musical character this natural, this real. A 3D real-life person, a complex mix of positive and negative qualities. The performance isn't tearjerkingly touching, or mindbendingly awesome. It's just human, through and through – and as such, thoroughly impressive.
Not to say Leppänen’s Jerry is the only point of interest. The musical is actually full of pretty interesting guys. The rest of the leading six don’t have quite as many songs to sing, but they’re still all three-dimensional and sympathetic, both the way they’re written and the way this production portrays them.
It’s a shame that the women of the musical, then, are shallow creatures. They like to shop and watch handsome men dance, love their husbands, and that’s all we ever get to know about them.
Of course this story is first and foremost about men’s struggles. And sure, women’s place in society is touched upon – most of the ladies we encounter in the show are employed, unlike their husbands. But even so, it doesn’t seem quite right that the only strong female character in the whole show is the striptease act’s pianist Jeanette (in Lahti, played by the charismatic Satu Säävälä).
So. I guess The Full Monty joins Rocky on my list of overly masculine musicals that took me by surprise.
I’m of course not as in love with The Full Monty as I am with Rocky (and not only because it’s impossible for me to be as in love with anything as I am with Rocky). The Full Monty’s music, composed by David Yazbek, is good but not especially memorable, even though Lahden kaupunginteatteri’s orchestra plays it to perfection. The story and the mood of the show, while sympathetic and nice, are not especially earthshattering either.
And yet, at the very same time, this is one of those rare performances that leave a physical happy little flutter in my stomach.
Pants... I mean, hats off!
Photos by Aki Loponen and Tarmo Valmela.
Other reviews (in Finnish): Teatterikärpäsen puraisuja, Teatterinna