Village Players almost had 'The Empty Monty'

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Ken Trainorktrainor@wjinc.com

Village Players recently concluded a very successful run of the stage version of The Full Monty. I managed to see it on the final weekend-with a very responsive group of Ascension parishioners-and it wasn't hard to see why the show was popular.

The earlier film version was a huge hit with American audiences and the stage version, turned into a musical, features good songs with strong voices and clever staging. The stage version is different from the movie version but just as entertaining. It puts you in the unlikely position of recommending a male striptease show to your neighbors and friends.

It was one of Village Players' most successful productions in the last five years, but the show almost didn't go on.

Carl Occhipinti, VP's artistic director, said they obtained the rights to The Full Monty a year and a half ago. But they're not an equity company, and the rule is an equity company has "right of refusal" if they discover a competing production by a non-equity theatre anywhere within a 25-mile radius.

Occhipinti, to his great dismay, learned that Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre was planning to put on The Full Monty. He also learned that Oak Park is only 22 miles away. And he learned all this just as his cast was starting rehearsals.

He didn't say anything at first because he didn't want them to freak out, and he appealed to MTI (Music Theater International) the governing body for musical theater rights. He explained the show was already listed in their season brochures and all their other marketing.

MTI told him to talk with Marriott, which consented to let VP retain its rights as long as they didn't advertise outside Oak Park. No problem, Occhipinti said. They only advertise in Wednesday Journal and whatever free listings are available in the Chicago area.

Then, of course, the Chicago Tribune picked up on VP's predicament and did a story on the production.

"It made us look like we weren't keeping our word," Occhipinti said. He explained the situation to Marriott, and they were gracious about it. Which is why the program notes contained a thank you to Marriott Lincolnshire, whose current run of The Full Monty is receiving positive reviews. Occhipinti said he and the cast are planning to go see it as a way of showing their support.

All's well that ends well, as some other theater buff (so to speak) once said.

Overall, he says, the right of refusal rule is a good one, but it can be tough on smaller, non-equity theaters. Next season, for instance, they're planning to do Batboy, which Occhipinti says could be as big a draw as The Full Monty. Turns out the Bailiwick Theatre in Chicago is also doing it.

"It's hard because you have to plan so far in advance," he notes. He wishes there were a central place online where theatres can post their plans and everyone can check what's in the hopper.

Occhipinti says The Full Monty was similar to the success they had with The Buddy Holly Story a couple of years ago.

"Buddy Holly had great music, dancing-it was almost a concert. Full Monty also had stories and heart. It hits you. You're drawn by the 'gimmick,' but there's so much more. It makes you think, 'Where have I done the Full Monty, something uncomfortable for the one I love?' We all relate to that."

Occhipinti, who directed the play, said he didn't want the gimmick to overshadow the story, so he brought his actors into their smaller "black box" space, turned off all the lights, and they ran through their lines in the dark.

"They heard the story," he recalled. "They really listened to each other. That was the turning point. I kept driving home the story. The rest is glitter."

He also told them, "You'll be naked [emotionally] long before you're physically naked onstage."

Next year, Occhipinti says will be VP's "Season of Music," beginning Aug. 21 with Love in the Middle Ages (an original musical about Baby Boomers), followed by Medium At Large, a musical written by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way (Oct. 17). In addition to the aforementioned Bat Boy, they will also offer Amadeus and Sunday in the Park with George.

Occhipinti, who is entering his fifth year as artistic director, says things are looking up for Village Players.

"Five years ago, if you showed up, you got a role," he laughed. "Now you have to have talent."

And the talent is coming as the word gets around.

"It's been a nice journey," he notes. "It's like living a dream."

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