Going All the Way?-“Full Monty” at the Norris Theatre
The warning shot comes out of the blue.
“If you think you know what ‘The Full Monty’ is about, you don’t,” says James W. Gruessing, Jr., the artistic director of Palos Verdes Performing Arts. Gruessing also happens to be directing this amusing but dramatic musical, which opens, let me check my daybook, tomorrow evening at the Norris Theatre in Rolling Hills Estates.
“A lot of people assume it’s just about men taking off their clothes,” Gruessing continues, “and that’s the last 30 seconds of the play. The first two hours and ten minutes leading up to that moment are what’s really important. It’s the heart of the show and all about the relationships.”
What relationships? Well, primarily between the six former employees of a steel mill in Buffalo, New York, who suddenly found themselves out of work when the steel mill closed its doors. There’s also the impact that job loss can have on personal relationships, be it with wives, girlfriends, parents or children. But thirdly, and perhaps it’s the most important thing of all, this is a story of what men do or need to do in order to rebuild their fractured self-esteem.
Harley Jay has the leading role. “I’m either the lucky one or the cursed one,” he says, and we’ll find out which it is on opening night after the critics sharpen their pencils. As Jerry, Harley Jay becomes something of a cheerleader for this down-at-the-heels group, especially after he comes up with a sure-fire get-rich scheme. But at what cost?
A troupe of Chippendale dancers has come through town and swiveled their hips to a sold-out audience of women. Jerry thinks, hey, we can do that, and then later boasts that they’ll even one-up the Chippendales by going “the full monty,” a euphemism for baring all. So that’s what Gruessing was referring to, or, in popular parlance, two hours of audience foreplay and then the money shot.
No biz like showbiz
But at the moment Harley Jay is sitting across the table and explaining how he fell into show business.
“I got into theater where there was a girl in my high school that I wanted to date, and we were doing ‘Play It Again, Sam,’ which is a Woody Allen play. She (the goddess) was in everything. I was an athlete and played basketball. So I thought, The way that I can talk to this weird theater girl is, I’ll get in the play and hopefully she’ll get in it.”
The girl didn’t get the part, but Harley Jay did, and then he fell in love with theater
“Since then I’ve lucked out with doing a little stint on Broadway in a show called ‘Rent,’ and I did the ‘Rent’ tour before that.” He’s also had a run with “Miss Saigon.”
However, his name hasn’t appeared on theater marqees for some time because he’s been making music with his band instead, and opening for the likes of Rick Springfield, the Gin Blossoms, Wilson Phillips, and Marc Broussard. In November the group opens for Eddie Money at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills.
What kind of music do you do?
“I would say it’s a cross between Keith Urban and Bryan Adams,” Harley Jay replies, “so it’s a slight bit of country but it’s kind of edgy rock and roll. It has like a little bit of an ‘80s vibe. I don’t care about acid-washed jeans and how uncool they were, I love them, and yeah, anything ‘80s I’m totally into.”
A friend of his alerted him to the auditions for “The Full Monty.” Harley Jay didn’t know much about the show, although he’d seen the 1997 British film on which the musical is based. The friend then played a selection from the musical, a song called “Man.”
“And I was like, oh, I gotta sing that,” Harley Jay says. “If nothing else, I’m gonna use it as an audition song. I came in here and sang ‘Faithfully,’ by Journey, and here I am.”
I don’t buy it.
I think the reason you’re here is because you found out that the girl from high school was going to be in the show.
“Right!” He laughs. “Don’t tell my wife that!”
Harley Jay says that what initially drew him to “The Full Monty” was the music. “The songs are genius,” he claims, referring to the tunes by David Yazbek. And what better place than here to mention that the book for the show was written by the great Terrence McNally, known for such works as “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Of course, when Harley Jay told friends and family that he was going to perform in “The Full Monty” it’s likely that everyone raised an eyebrow, cracked a smile, or gave him a wink. But, as James Gruessing has already informed us, the heart of the show is in the relationships among the six men, and Harley Jay only confirms this, and adds that, at rock bottom, these are all characters that we know and can empathize with.
There is, again, the issue of self-esteem, which takes a serious hit when one’s livelihood is suddenly disrupted. Then all the other self-doubts flock to the surface.
“I think every character in the show has their own type of insecurity,” says Harley Jay, “whether it be body type – as in short, tall, skinny or fat. My character is 31, and there’s a guy on stage and he’s over 50. So that’s his insecurity. Another guy, his insecurity is that he’s bald – I never would have thought anyone would be insecure about that.”
The irony is that these are tough-talking, beer-swilling guys, and suddenly their insecurities seem so human and even petty. And then there’s Jerry’s insecurity, which surfaces later, but surface it certainly does:
“For a hundred pages of the script my character is the guy that’s pushing this whole thing and telling everybody we’re gonna be really great; it’s gonna be awesome. He’s got a kid, loves his kid; this is a quick, easy way, quote, quote easy, to make some money so he can pay his child support payments.
“And then,” adds Harley Jay, “100 pages into it, you get to that 101st page and now it comes down to actually going through with it – and that’s where his insecurity is. I made all these guys comfortable and now they’re really into it. I had no time to think about what I’m about to do. Again, that’s another life lesson that creeps in on you in the show: When it comes down to actually (disrobing) hopefully you’re a person that can keep your word, because that might come up where you have to follow through with it.”
In short, “It’s a show that no matter what point you’re at in your life, you’ve either been through this or know someone who’s been through this or both.”
When we spoke, Harley Jay hadn’t yet rehearsed “The Full Monty” pay-off scene, or the big tease if you’re expecting more than what you get, and he had some jitters about it.
“I’m a little nervous, but at the same time I feel like every actor kind of has this on their bucket list, even if you’re freaked out about it.” Later, he hopes, he’ll be able to boast: “In front of 450 people I took all my clothes off – and it was a rush!”
But he better be sure, while performing with his fellow actors the very last number (“Let It Go” – no, not the big hit in Disney’s “Frozen”), that no one’s offended the person working the lights. If they have, it will be the full monty and then some.
Nuts, and bolts
The music director, Daniel Thomas, has been on hand for all the professional shows at the Norris since they again started to stage musicals in 2008. His input is vital for propelling the show forward without a hitch.
Thomas, along with Gruessing and the choreographer Paul Bryant (who also plays Horse in the show, a nickname that has nothing to do with a raspy voice), auditioned 152 people for 17 roles.
“We called back 40 people,” Gruessing says, “and we started pairing people up, and some people just jelled better together. The chemistry is very important, especially in a show like this where you’re playing best friends and wives. Sometimes you think, as an actor, it would be easy, well, anybody could do that – and it’s not always that easy.”
Harley Jay, however, had no problem feeling right at home with his steelworker buddies. “Thankfully, all the guys in the show are not only super-talented but super, super nice guys.” (As is the light operator, of course; I’m just covering for you, Harley)
The countdown has begun, and the cast has quite an adventure ahead.
“The Full Monty”
Where: The Norris Theatre, 27570 Norris Center Drive, Rolling Hills Estates
When: Opens tomorrow. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Through Oct. 5
How much: $45-$55 ($27 youth)
Call: (310) 544-0403
Online: palosverdesperforming arts.com