Takin' It Off At Le Petit

Friday September 22, 06
by David Cuthbert, Times-Picayune Lagniappe


'The Full Monty' opens an all-important, all-musical 90th season at the historic theater
Friday, September 22, 2006
By David Cuthbert
Theater writer

For some cast members of Le Petit Theatre's production of "The Full Monty," the flash of nudity at the end of the show is no big deal.

Certainly it wasn't for William DiPaola, formerly a member of the off-Broadway cast of the long-running musical comedy revue "Naked Boys Singing." So much so that early in rehearsals, he forgot to wear his thong for the finale, "Let It Go," whipped off his breakaway pants and -- let it go, "scaring the hell out of some poor costume woman."

Perry Williams, an original member of the fabled Dashiki Theatre, appeared naked in "Let My People Come" at the old Sho-Bar on Bourbon Street, "just before I graduated from Xavier."

Sean Richmond, who plays the professional stripper in the show, traveled for eight months with the touring company of "The Full Monty" doing that very role, so he's quite comfortable discarding his duds.

Matthew Mickal, who has a healthy "So what?" attitude about the whole thing, was " 'dropping trou' all the time," said choreographer Karen Hebert, adding, "That boy couldn't wait to get his underwear off."

But the guy who did it first was Dane Rhodes, who plays Dave, "the big guy who's ashamed of his weight and nobody wants to see the big guy naked," Rhodes said. "And one night early on, I figured, 'What the hell, why don't I break the ice and just do it so it doesn't become this big problem later on.' So I did, and it wasn't an issue for me anymore.

"The whole story of the show is about these guys who have lost their jobs at the steel mill, they have money problems, they have relationship problems, they have self-esteem problems. But by working together, they fix the problems that started their amateur stripper project in the first place and they don't really have to do 'The Full Monty' -- taking it all off, but they do it anyway, because they said they would and getting naked becomes this kind of pinnacle for them."

Director Sonny Borey took Rhodes' lead with all six male principals late one night, suddenly announcing, 'OK, get your G-strings and policeman's uniforms, we're going into the lobby and get it over with.' "

Back on stage

A lot is riding on "The Full Monty," which opens Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré's 90th, "all-musical" season tonight. This will be the first show in the 420-seat main auditorium in two full seasons, after it was closed to dig an orchestra pit and install new state-of-the-art technical equipment, a $1.2 million project extended by Katrina damage. ("We got $1 million from the state, and we raised $200,000," Borey said.)

But there's been no money coming in except for a few shows in the smaller Muriel's Cabaret space, contributions from individuals and several benefits by theaters and individuals across the country, one by Patricia Neal, the Tony Award- and Oscar-winning actress who has played Le Petit twice as part of The Tennessee Williams Festival. A company in England is kicking in some Euros.

Every bit of it is much-needed because even the revenue from the cabaret stage was lost until recently, due to air-conditioning problems. "Like everybody else in New Orleans, we were waiting for insurance money," Borey said.

And like every theater in New Orleans, Le Petit is facing an uphill battle.

It has lost a good deal of its subscriber base, and will depend more than ever on single-ticket sales, which even before Katrina were providing 60 percent of box-office revenue.

Its salaried staff is down to three people: box-office manager Jenny Richardson, technical director Ed McIntyre and maintenance manager Andrew Carmon. Executive/artistic director Borey and executive administrator/musical director Derek Franklin haven't drawn salaries in some time.

Borey, however, even with considerable debt hanging over the theater, prefers to see his wine glass as half-full of merlot, rather than half-empty. While giving a tour of the building, he pointed to the balcony and said, "Down the line, we'll eventually remove the sound and light rooms, consolidate them behind Plexiglas at the top of the balcony and put in more seats.

"Like anything, you can't stop improving," he said. "You can't be stagnant. You've got to keep moving. If you don't try and move forward, you're not going to stand still, you'll move backward."

"The Full Monty" is costing "about $50,000" to produce and "We damn well better make money," Borey growls.

Help from friends

What Le Petit has going for it is a well-founded reputation for producing slick, professional musicals, loyalty to Borey, who taught theater for 30 years at Jesuit High School, developing excellent onstage and backstage talent, which keeps returning to Borey's nest. There is also a love for "The Little Theatre" itself, the oldest continually operating community theater in the United States. And because of Katrina, Le Petit has been cut some slack.

"Our set is from the road show and we got it at a bare bones price because of the city's situation," he said. "We have three (Actors) Equity actors in 'Monty' and they are being paid the minimum. In addition, Equity usually demands if you have three Equity performers, you have to pay for an Equity stage manager, and they've waived that stipulation.

"Our upfront money has come from business interruption insurance. Our board of governors has been very generous and our chairman, Harry Widmann, has gone above and beyond in helping the theater.

"We've had help from the Omni Bank in getting out our season brochure, which was written and designed by professional volunteers. The New Orleans Publishing Group provided support with our programs. Ed Perez and Comfort Engineered Systems stepped up to the AC plate so we could get the Sophie Tucker-Jimmy Durante show running in our cabaret, even to coming down there on nights when we had problems."

And it's well-known that Borey's and Franklin's credit cards get used when there's something they feel the show can't do without. "But Ryan Rilette and Southern Rep do the same thing," Borey said.

"The point is, we've now got two shows going on," Borey said, "and an even better one in the green room with Carolyn Barrois fitting those guys for their G-strings. I bet I could sell tickets to that. And we have 12 musicians in the pit, with Derek conducting. I could put another bar down there and get some more revenue going during intermission."

That Broadway feel

But seriously, folks, there's method to Borey's madness. "People have always loved our musicals," he said, "so I figured an entire season of them would bring an audience back if anything would. And look who we have directing -- the best people in the city! Vernel Bagneris, directing at home for the first time in I don't know how long with his international hit show, 'One Mo' Time,' which began just around the corner from us. Ricky Graham is directing 'Tunes,' another fabulous homegrown show featuring Fred Palmisano's music, which started here at Le Petit. And Brandt Blocker, who gave us some of our best family shows and main-stage hits, is returning for the Kander and Ebb revue 'And the World Goes 'Round.' Talk about blessed!"

Blocker introduced Borey to the 20-year-old lighting genius Gary Solomon, who has been flying down from his classes at New York University every weekend to design and set the lights for "The Full Monty," assisted by Earl Lennie.

"I wanted somebody good and if you saw Gary's work in 'Grease' on our stage, or 'The All-Nite Strut!' at Southern Rep, you know how good he is," Borey said.

Solomon is donating his services to Le Petit.

"I want this first show especially to have a real jazzy, Broadway feel," Solomon said. "Le Petit's light board was damaged, so we've had to rent two light boards for the show; 'The Full Monty' sign takes 36 dimmers alone." His contributions will include rock-show style "intelligent lighting" and "color scrollers with 16 gels on each roll, which gives a kaleidoscopic effect."

Solomon's career trajectory, as he sees it, is to learn as much as he can in New York ("the business of art and the art of business"), while still doing shows in New Orleans "and then bring what I've learned back home to create live entertainment here."

A solid cast

Borey's cast for "The Full Monty" includes Robert Richardson in the lead role of Jerry Lukowski, who comes up with the idea of the blue collar stripper group "Hot Metal," Scott Sauber, the young king of the local summer "church circuit" musicals, Leah Bond as their wisecracking piano player, cabaret-theater belter Cynthia Owen, Trina Beck, Vanessa Van Vrancken, Mandy Zirkenbach, Bryan Wagar, Tom Grantham and Terrell Robinson, all of whom have played leading roles at Le Petit and elsewhere.

Choreographing -- and filling in at rehearsals for whoever isn't there that night, male or female -- is red-haired pixie Karen Hebert, Le Petit's Gwen Verdon. Many of the guys expressed relief that their characters are "not supposed to be good dancers," because they've worked with "Miss Karen" before and know the kind of rigorous rehearsals and results she demands. "But you've got to know what you're doing before you can dance 'bad,' " Hebert said. "Also, there's an art to taking your clothes off onstage, both for men and women."

"What makes me feel good is that everybody's a team player," Hebert said. "Lots of times you'll find varying layers of commitment to a show, which is why I don't work a lot in this town. At Le Petit, everyone knows they have to commit."

If Borey knows your work and likes you, you're in.

"And who doesn't like naked men?" Borey asks, adding, "remember, women and gay men are the ones buying theater tickets."