Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Going for It

In these anxious days when nearly everyone’s feeling a financial pinch, a trip to the theater might be just the thing to take our minds off our troubles. Better yet would be to see a musical about a group of down-on-their-luck guys who turn unemployment into unexpected opportunities.

Mercury Players Theatre kicks off its season with The Full Monty, a musical about six British men who lose their job in a steel mill and take inspiration from Chippendale dancers to raise some cash.

Director Pete Rydberg offered some insight into his—as well as music director JS Fauquet and choreographer Cindy Severt’s—plans for the production. 

How does the musical fit into the types of productions your company typically takes on—or how is it a departure?

Full Monty is one of the most mainstream productions Mercury Players has done in a long time, and it was certainly a discussion topic at our artistic committee meetings. First and foremost we put the artistic integrity of any possible production, and all three of us (myself, JS and Cindy) felt we could make a really exciting production of the show, and the company has the people and material resources to pull it off. It is without question the largest budget and one of the largest casts Mercury has had in a long time. And while it is a more recognized title than most of our other productions, it is still a new opportunity for area theatergoers who are likely only familiar with the screen version, which is a horse of a very different color. We also have a twelve-year-old lead—and Mercury rarely chooses pieces with young actors (last year’s Pillowman is the only other instance I know of, and the role in that show was fairly small).

What’s your approach to Full Monty?

It’s musical theatre, not a play—as I continually remind my actors. I like to direct “straight” theatre, but musical theatre is a completely different style of performance, so training actors to think outside of “realistic acting modes” is challenging. There is a technical precision that absolutely must be there in a musical that is not always as necessary or even desired in non-musical performances. There is more artifice, a demand for larger suspensions of disbelief, and the proscenium space does not allow for as much on audience-performer intimacy.

We began choreography workshops in May, and then focused June on music and choreography—both of which are extremely challenging for this particular production. Musically this is a huge challenge for both actors and musicians. There are times when all six of the leads will be singing their own line of melody creating a dissonant sequence—which is electrifying to hear in the audience but for performers on stage can sound “off” or “wrong” because, of course, it is dissonant.

As for the larger scope of the play, it is all about regular people finding ways to transcend their day-to-day—the six male leads transform from pathetic, antagonistic jerks and losers to a unified group of friends who, with the bond of their friendship behind them and the opportunity of doing something truly daring, achieve the improbable. The women in the show have a challenge as characters in charge of the household incomes and traditional male social roles. They must find a way to balance their relationships with these men who feel they have nothing to give back. The men feel like losers, and treat their respective partners poorly because of it. And the women need to find a way to overcome their significant others’ personal obstacles.

Most importantly, I have worked on making sure that while the show has many intensely dramatic moments, that it remained a musical comedy, as intended.

How close are you sticking to the original musical or the 1997 film?

I watched the film about ten years ago and not since. The musical adaptation takes a lot of liberties with the original film—resetting it in Buffalo as opposed to Sheffield or wherever it was in Britain, and adding/deleting a couple characters, but the basic storyline remained the same. As for the differences with the original production of the musical, I always throw those considerations out the window. The original was a multi-million production with hydraulic settings, etc etc. The Bartell demands different considerations, and I only have thirty grand—and I say “only” as comparison; again, it’s the most expensive show Mercury has ever produced. That is not to say that throwing money at a production makes for a good show—that is where Cindy, JS and I come in. The three of us discussed dozens of potential follow-ups to Reefer Madness [a musical Mercury Players produced last fall]. It had to be a fit for Mercury Players, and more importantly it had to challenge the music director, choreographer and myself. I have steered a couple scenes that played fairly realistically in the original production into more “fantasy” sequences, which ties in well with the overriding themes of hope, dreams and impossible situations. It has proven to be an immense challenge, but a very rewarding one.

Are there parallels to be drawn between the challenges the characters of the play face and what it’s like to work in the arts in the current economy?

I would say there are parallels to be drawn between the challenges of the characters in the play and the challenges we all face trying to live in the current economy. Who doesn't have a friend out of work? Who doesn’t know someone who has been laid off because their job went overseas? We are at a low time in our economy, which is the story of those in the musical. We have chosen to set it in 2008, as opposed to ten or fifteen years ago because of that resonance. This is a story we will all be able to relate to—and have a laugh at the same time.

What are your goals for the show and what do you hope audiences get from seeing the production?

I want the audience to be standing on their feet cheering for these characters at the end of the show. I want them to see the men go from losers to winners, to see and feel that regular schmoes like you and me can be more than we ever dreamed of if we just have the bravery to do so. I want to give that to the audience in a polished production—which is a lot to achieve with a twenty-plus-person cast and a two-hour show. But we are well on our way. The set looks fabulous, all my little bells and whistles are falling into place, and the choreography and music are almost ready to go. I want people to leave the theater feeling uplifted and humming the music as they walk away from the Bartell. The largest sell in Madison is audience word of mouth, so I hope if we do our job and deliver a polished, entertaining evening of theater, that people will come again, and tell their friends to check it out as well.

The Full Monty runs September 4 to 27 at the Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors, and $12 for groups of ten or more. 661.9696 x 5,

Photos courtesy of Colm McCarthy. 

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