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'Full Monty' displays naked truths at Mesa Arts Center

(l to r)  Damon J. Bolling as Jerry Lukowski, Chad Campbell as Malcolm MacGregor, Andrew Lipman as Dave BukatinskiSinging the song "Big-Ass Rock"'The Full Monty' plays through June 15, 2014 at Mesa Arts Center
(l to r) Damon J. Bolling as Jerry Lukowski, Chad Campbell as Malcolm MacGregor, Andrew Lipman as Dave BukatinskiSinging the song "Big-Ass Rock"'The Full Monty' plays through June 15, 2014 at Mesa Arts Center
Wade Moran / Mesa Encore Theatre

Mesa Encore Theatre opened The Full Monty this week to crowds that were treated to a musical that bears it all. What the ensemble cast exposed is much more intimate than full-frontal, rendering the company's 'nudity disclaimer' pretty inconsequential. A few of the cast's leading men visited last evening with Examiner at Mesa Art Center about what they've given to create characters who take it all off.

Male Stripper 'Keno' (Jesse Ochoa) opens the show 'The Full Monty' at Mesa Arts Center
Wade Moran / Mesa Encore Theatre

"It's surprising how much of this show isn't about the last scene," said Damon Bolling (Jerry) referring to the moment when six average, out of work guys in Buffalo, New York, dare go 'the full Monty' by removing even their g-strings in a one-night-only striptease performance that Jerry has concocted to claw himself and his buddies out of financial ruin.

"These are some of the most realistic guys ever written into a musical," echoed Andrew Lipman (Dave). "They're real humans. By the time we get to that last scene, instead of being embarrassed or self-conscious [about all the body parts the characters are about to reveal], the audience has gotten to know what's inside us. Because of their reaction, the scene is really positively charged. It's actually empowering."

But in the interest of full transparency, let's be clear. The opening male stripper scene is a raucously bawdy beginning to a show that's as full of cheeky humor as it was when it was nominated for nine Tony Awards in 2000. Keno (Jesse Ochoa) had admittedly sweet Chippendale eye-candy-appeal, artfully choreographed by Paul Pedersen. It got trumped, however, by his acting in the bathroom scene. Gender and sexuality stereotypes careened head on into each other as gay, male stripper butted up against blue-collar, nails-tough, homophobic masculinity. Ochoa's character's comfortable confidence with exactly who and what he is (and more importantly, what he is not), smashed to smithereens the most jaded bigot's perception, and it had a notable effect on leading men Jerry and Dave as well.

Great giggles earned with reckless abandon fully engaged the crowd throughout the show. Some brilliant staging had the audience gasping with laughter when the ladies overtook the men's restroom . The audacity and conviction of Michael Leeth's (Horse) 'Big Black Man' had people literally holding their bellies as they cackled. Even attempted suicide was so filled with puns and ridiculous lyrics in 'Big-Ass Rock,' that the trio received whooping, scattered applause while Dave & Jerry cajoled Malcolm (a dim-witted, friendless young man masterfully played by Chad Campbell) out of his deadly depression.

"Malcolm is passionate about everything to the extremes. He's incredibly insecure, but 'real person' insecure," said Campbell about his character. "I feel like he's a guy who's probably tried to kill himself fifty times. The prospect of gaining his first-ever friends is so thrilling that, even though they're offering ways to help him commit suicide, he's almost joyful. I feel like when you're Malcolm, you can do that."

Through all the laughter, it was nonetheless the pristine, raw and revealing moments that really carried this show. An unbelievably enveloping male-chorus harmony set us solidly in an empathy camp with the unemployed guys from the get go. Disclosing they'd lost self-respect and their very identity along with their paychecks, there was an exquisite blend in the rebellious misery of their opening number, 'Scrap.'

Aaron Zweiback as Nathan, Jerry's son, had a genuine earnestness that endeared the audience to great effect. By the second act, as Jerry relayed a gently touching rendition of 'Breeze off the Water,' it was the bond Zweiback had so securely fused with his character's dad that helped provide the number's chills.

Perhaps the evening's musical and emotional highlight was Malcolm's duet, 'You Walk With Me.' With the truest of tenor strains Campbell began the number. When Jonathan Holdsworth as Ethan joined him, the song's bittersweet beauty was twinged with the added sadness of realizing we'd sat through almost the entire show before we got to hear in isolation Holdsworth's rich vocal quality.

Arguably the show's sexiest moment occurred during the husband-wife exchange between Georgie (Heather Fallon) and Dave just prior to the reprise of 'You Rule My World.' Clothed but mercilessly exposed, the two confessed their greatest vulnerabilities and scariest insecurities to one another, and we bore witness as two souls touched.

-Jennifer Haaland

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