BEVERLY — Stories of underdogs who defy expectations always have universal appeal. After all, it’s less about winning and more about someone who pushes beyond their limitations. “The Full Monty,” the musical version of the 1997 film now playing at the North Shore Music Theatre, fits squarely in this camp. Although it would be easy to dismiss David Yazbek’s (“The Band’s Visit,” “Tootsie”) music as derivative and Terrence McNally’s (“Ragtime”) book as rife with cliches, the heart of this musical is its characters.
At first blush, “The Full Monty” feels painfully outdated. We meet a group of unemployed steel plant workers in Buffalo singing about losing their self-respect (“Scrap”) along with their paychecks. They’ve been demoted to doing dishes and vacuuming — oh, the horror! — while their wives relax after a Chippendales male stripper show (“It’s a Woman’s World”). The workers’ former boss, Harold (Tim Connell), has gone deeply into debt to make his materialistic wife happy, and one of the gang’s biggest schemers, Jerry (Jared Zirilli), is so behind on his child support he’s about to lose custody of his son Nathan (Quinn Murphy at the performance I attended).
But when Jerry realizes how much money the Chippendales earn, he decides a one-night-only strip routine with his former co-workers will solve their financial problems. The first act chugs along, sketching these two-dimensional, unsympathetic characters and slowly setting us up for the performance.
And then Kathy St. George steps on stage. St. George plays a character role, Jeanette, a showbiz veteran who appears at the auditions to serve as the crew’s accompanist. She’s got some zingers and a great song at the top of Act II — “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number” — where she sizes up the talent and compares it to her hilarious career. St. George (despite a truly odd gray wig) is terrific, providing an electric current that brings everyone else’s energy up a notch.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s soon joined by Bernard Dotson, who plays the arthritic Noah “Horse” T. Simmons. Dotson’s James Brown spoof, “Big Black Man,” allows him to transform from stiff to sublime and back again.
And then, once we’ve made it to the second act, the show finally clicks into place. “Breeze Off the River” allows Zirilli to show off his vocal prowess and give the hapless Jerry some depth, revealing his longing to be a dad his son can look up to. “You Rule My World” allows two of the wives, Georgie (Emily Koch) and Vicki (Sara Gettelfinger), to let their husbands know how much they mean to them. “You Walk with Me” gives Brendan Jacob Smith (as the awkward Malcolm) a chance to let his truly angelic voice deliver that shiver up the spine, with ample support from Christopher deProphetis (as Ethan, who finds love with Malcolm).
Director and choreographer Gerry McIntyre has cast a strong ensemble and knows exactly how to keep the action moving around that arena stage. The goofy audition routines and clumsy attempts at choreography — outlined in the number “Michael Jordan’s Ball” — feel natural. The range of vocal power, too, is exceptional, with music director and conductor Milton Granger keeping his modest 11-piece orchestra supporting, and never overwhelming, the singers onstage.
By the time we get to Yazbek’s climactic number, “Let It Go,” and the “full monty” of the title — don’t worry, even in the round, it’s tastefully done — you may find yourself forgiving the goofy rhymes and enjoying the fun. But it’s just too little, too late.
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com
THE FULL MONTY
Music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Book by Terrence McNally. Directed by Gerry McIntyre. Choreography by McIntyre. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, 54 Dunham Road, Beverly. Through Oct. 8. Tickets $73-$88. 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org