Story: When a steel mill closes down in Buffalo, it affects not only the livelihoods of several men but also their self-respect and sense of identity. As they struggle with unemployment, they also chafe at the success enjoyed by the Chippendales’ type of male strippers at a local club patronized by their wives and other women.

This gives one of the guys, Jerry Lukowski, an idea. He and his pals could make some money and regain some of their self-worth by staging a show that will one-up those male dancers by having its performers go ‘the full monty,’ baring all for their art. It might even bring in enough cash to help Jerry maintain visiting rights with his ex-wife to see his son Nathan, the person closest to his heart.

Highlights: Stages St. Louis, which presented a popular production of The Full Monty in its 2007 season, has brought the crowd-pleaser back to its fans with a highly energized and entertaining rendition to close out its 29th season with a sizzle.

Other Info: The Full Monty began as a 1997 movie set in Sheffield, England, an industrial city beset with economic woes in the aftermath of a steel mill shutdown. It garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Film and then resurfaced three years later as a Broadway musical, with its locale shifted to America and Buffalo, another blue-collar city.

With a book by Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally (Ragtime, Master Class, Love! Valor! Compassion!), plus music and lyrics by David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), The Full Monty picked up 10 Tony Award nominations in 2000, with Yazbek winning for Best Score.

McNally’s script is intelligent and populated with believable, sympathetic characters, nicely complemented by Yazbek’s clever lyrics and musical motifs. Artistic director Michael Hamilton capitalizes on the show’s strengths with a briskly paced, classy interpretation that accentuates the talents of his well-coordinated cast.

While the story seems a bit tired in my viewing of a third production, there’s no denying the caliber of the performances Hamilton culls from his smart and savvy players. A number of the players make the most of their chances to shine in numbers focused on their individual characters, while contributing just as convincingly as ensemble members backing up a primary character.

Brent Michael Diroma heads the cast as Jerry, a well-meaning but blundering sort who badly wants his son to love him despite his shortcomings. There’s wonderful chemistry between Diroma and Cole Hoefferle as the 32-year-old Jerry and his 14-year-old son Nathan, although the maturity levels of the two often seem reversed. Young Hoefferle is a constant delight with his comic talents, indicative of the bright future he surely has.

Diroma can belt out a tune with the best of them and dances up a storm as well, evidenced early in the production with the number Scrap with his colleagues in an abandoned factory or just as effectively in the Act I closer, Michael Jordan’s Ball, in which he shows his fellow strippers how to ‘perform’ by emulating the moves on a basketball court.

The others in Jerry’s entourage include his best friend, flabby and flustered Dave Bukatinsky, played in supreme deadpan style by Todd Horman, who has more than a passing resemblance to Jackie Gleason in his uniform in the show finale. Milton Craig Nealy makes the most of one of the show’s most hilarious numbers as Noah “Horse” Simmons, displaying moves aplenty on the Big Black Man number, choreographed flamboyantly by Stephen Bourneuf.

Erik Keiser is fine as the quiet mama’s boy Malcolm MacGregor, whose 30 years of living have been controlled by his invalid mother. Keiser plays Malcolm’s repressed nature to the hilt with a series of priceless facial gestures and body language. Adam Shonkwiler is amusing as Ethan, an addle-brained worker determined to emulate Donald O’Connor’s walk up a wall from Singin’ in the Rain despite the multiple concussions that result.

James Ludwig completes the sextet of strippers as Harold, a former executive at the mill disliked by the guys until he reveals that he himself was laid off six months earlier, a fact still unknown to his zesty and expensive wife, Vicki. Ludwig’s low-key approach to Harold perfectly contrasts with the explosive sexiness and bon vivant style of Julie Cardia as good-time Vicki, the queen of the Arthur Murray dance studio in another excellent Bourneuf dance.

Stages favorite Zoe Vonder Haar displays her expert timing as the boys’ droll and free-wheeling piano accompanist Jeanette, a veteran of eight marriages and numerous gigs with sundry sorts of musicians who shapes the lads’ routine into a show biz extravaganza.

Leah Berry and Lindsie Vanwinkle nicely portray the wives of Jerry and Dave, respectively, while Morgan Amiel Faulkner has a grand time as Estelle, the gum-popping adversary of Pam Lukowski who takes care of Jerry’s physical needs.

The smooth ensemble cast includes local favorites Steve Isom, Kari Ely, Whit Reichert, John Flach, April Strelinger, Laura Ernst and Shawn Bowers as well as Ian Paget, Cody Heuer, Angela Sapolis and David Sajewich.

James Wolk’s set captures the forlorn look of an abandoned mill, with lighting by Matthew McCarthy for that as well as Harold’s lavish digs and the splashy performance hall. Musical direction is by Lisa Campbell Albert, orchestral design by Stuart Elmore and the revealing costumes and other outfits courtesy of Garth Dunbar.

The Full Monty has plenty of lively numbers, clever lyrics and juicy characters for actors to inhabit with glee, as evidenced by the warm reception it received on opening night.

Musical: The Full Monty

Company: Stages St. Louis

Venue: Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 South Geyer Road

Dates: Through October 4

Tickets: $20-$57; contact 821-2407 or stagesstlouis.org

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak

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