I've often wondered how producers of Broadway musicals go about replacing the stars of shows when those people go on to bigger and better things. I mean, unless it's a one-man (one woman) show, the show can't close just because one of the leads gets another job, wants to spend more time with family, or just gets tired of what he or she is doing and sees no reason to renew his or her contract. Those are facts of performing life. The producers (and anyone else involved--I don't know the specifics) owe it to their audiences (and, of course, themselves) to get great replacements for their stars. But what is the process?
After seeing the new cast of The Full Monty, I'm still wondering.
First, a little of my background with the show.
The Full Monty was the first new Broadway musical I saw when I moved to New York. How new was it? I saw it on opening night my first week in New York. I knew it was opening that night, but I didn't know when, so I went up to the box office around 6:30 to see what was available, and to my great shock, there was a ticket in the center of the second row of the mezzanine. I grabbed it, and was then informed that the show was starting right then. I rushed inside, and didn't have time to look at my Playbill before the show started.
I knew a couple of people in the show. Patrick Wilson as Jerry, the lead role, of course, and I'd heard Andre de Shields was in it, but beyond that, I was mostly clueless. I was particularly surprised to see Kathleen Freeman in the show; I, like 99% of people who saw her in the show, didn't know her name, but I knew her face very well and gave her recognition applause when she turned her head up on her first line. At intermission, I took some time to read the Playbill to find the names of the people I'd just seen. Lisa Datz, Emily Skinner, Romain Fruge, Jason Daniely, John Ellison Conlee, Annie Golden, etc., etc., etc. Some I knew, some I didn't.
One thing I knew, though, was pretty darn obvious: These people were all really good at what they were doing. Suited to their roles perfectly. That makes sense, though--if they're originating the roles, they'd better be good. So, I think I sort of took it for granted that someone would always be able to, for want of a better word, "pop" the songs as well as Patrick Wilson did or knock Jeanette's lines and song out of the ballpark as Kathleen Freeman managed, or could handle Jason Daniely's stratospheric high notes and convincing goofiness.
All six of the lead male roles have now been replaced in the cast. Will Chase is Jerry now, the unemployed steel worker fighting for the money he needs to hang onto his son. Chase was fine. He's a good singer, and was a notable Chris in Miss Saigon. He had a different air than Wilson, more refined, rough around the edges, and with less of a bite to his singing voice, but he's still okay. Jerry's overweight and overly self-concious friend, Dave, is now played by Daniel Sherman Stewart. He's less instantly likable and less funny in the ingratiating way that Conlee was, but he's decent enough. Chris Diamantopoulos is almost a carbon copy of Fruge's Ethan, the confused (in more than one way) man who tries to run up walls thinking he can dance on them. Larry Marshall is Horse now, and he doesn't have the same runaway energy that Andre de Shields had, but he's good enough. Steven Skybell is Harold now, but that role is watery and formless, so there's not much to say. Is he an improvement over the role's originator, or is he worse? I can't say. The original, Marcus Neville, was decent, but never made an impression. Skybell fills those shoes, I guess.
Then there's Danny Gurwin. The first show I saw after moving to New York was Forbidden Broadway 2001, in which he performed. And he was great, playing a wide variety of characters from Robert Preston to Cole Porter, and lots of others I'm sure I'm forgetting. But here... As Malcolm? Taking over from Jason Daniely who, by conservative estimates, has no upper limit on his vocal range? It just didn't work. Gurwin's voice was very weak, and he did little more than hit the notes. The script also describes Malcom as pigeon-chested, which Gurwin isn't--he's very well toned, obviously from a lot of time at the gym. That's fine, but it's wrong for the character. He vanished into the background almost every time he was onstage, and ruined every laugh Jason Daniely got, even in "Big Ass Rock," which I thought was unbreakable.
It's a terrible shame about Kathleen Freeman. She was a great performer, and I feel bad that she had to die during the run of a show that probably meant a great deal to her. Jane Connell is a surprisingly worthy replacement. I'm familiar with a great deal of her work, but this is only the second time I've seen her live. She doesn't have the instantly-recognizable star-power that Freeman possessed, but how many people have done as much TV and film work as Freeman had? Connell was very, very funny, and in every other way ideal for the role. I saw an understudy for Vicki, Laura Marie Duncan, who was broader than Emily Skinner, and far less effective.
Freeman I must forgive, and because I don't know the circumstances of Skinner's absence, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. (She is well known for missing many performances, however.) But the others are less easy to look past. The six men in the center of the show have to be really great, they have to be special. Patrick Wilson had something, a sort of star quality that drew your eyes to him. Will Chase doesn't have that, talented as he is--he feels like a replacement star. That might not have to be, but it is here. Skybell, Marshall, and Stewart are decent replacements at best, while Diamantopoulos is a carbon copy. I have no clue what Gurwin is, other than grossly, hideously miscast and completely ineffective. I feel like it's safe to say, if The Full Monty had opened with this cast, it probably wouldn't be running now.
That may be harsh, but could no one do any better? There are hundreds of actors in New York, and there had to be some that could offer more than adequacy to the story of a bunch of self-professed (or self-made losers) than the group currently embodying them. Jeanette, the rehearsal pianist from hell (translate=approximately 60 years of show business!) has great lines, but she can't get the only real laughs in the show!
I'm not going to claim that The Full Monty is the greatest show in the world; it's clearly not. It's far less moving than the movie, and though Terrence McNally's book has some good moments, it has a number of missed opportunities as well. I find David Yazbek's score intriguing, personally, as it lands somewhere between traditional musical comedy and the more recent post-modernist Broadway vein. The songs all sound like they're part of a single piece (though The Full Monty is not through-composed), while still retaining individuality. Jack O'Brien's direction is fine, Jerry Mitchell's choreography frequently clever and energetic, and the design scheme of the show (primarily John Arnone's sets) supports the material well. (Well, except for Malcolm's car, which I still think is an embarrassment!)
But, the quality of any show depends on some level on its stars, and the current crop in The Full Monty just isn't up to the task. I can't really recommend the Broadway production in the current state, but you may want to check out the touring production of the show which will be going out soon. Or even the London one, which has Daniely and de Shields in the roles they created. I hope that the next cast change, whatever it may be, will do justice to the show; if it doesn't, I find it hard to believe The Full Monty will see through the run its original, almost flawless cast foretold.
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