Of course, the 1988 20th Century Fox comedy is much more than OK; in both story and tone, it’s a perfect film fable. Tapping into universal longings — of children to be grown up, of adults to recapture innocence and spontaneity — the Penny Marshall film spins out a side-splittingly funny yet ultimately moving riff on the truism that goes: Be careful what you wish for because it may come true.
Longings make pretty good fodder for musicals. Yet the most significant way in which “Big — The Musical” fails to measure up to the film is the way most of the opportunities to capitalize on the
yearnings of its characters are squandered by composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr.
A veteran team capable of turning out pleasant songs, Maltby and Shire nevertheless have yet to produce a completely successful score. To be sure, “Big” has ballads, dance numbers and several rousing company turns. And yet, more often than not, the songs simply reiterate what John Weidman’s dreary, if essentially screenplay-faithful, book already has made clear.
Worse, the trio have devised a libretto that, for all its dabbling in rap and hip-hop and all its invocations of pop culture icons, is laughably out of date where kids are concerned. The fresh-faced, loose-limbed unreality is rein-
forced by director Mike Ockrent and choreographer Susan Stroman, who share a stunningly innocent notion of how young teens today behave together and what’s on their minds. The show has about as much edge as “The Brady Bunch”– which wouldn’t matter if it weren’t trying so hard to pretend otherwise.
“Big” tells the story of Josh Baskin (Patrick Levis), a suburban boy about to turn 13 whose wish to be grown up is mysteriously granted. With the help of his wisecracking sidekick Billy (Brett Tabisel, possibly the only member of the cast who seems completely comfortable in his role), big Josh (Daniel Jenkins) runs away to New York.
There he lands a job with a toy manufacturer whose cranky president, MacMillan (Jon Cypher, of TV’s “Hill Street Blues” and “Major Dad”), despairs of producing a bestselling toy because his company has been taken over by executives with MBAs instead of imagination.
An adorable man with an almost-13-year-old inside, Josh is in his element, turning his office into a toy-strewn paradise and his apartment into a pinball arcade. He’s also pursued by Susan (Crista Moore), a calculating marketing director with a history of sleeping her way up the corporate ladder.
To her own surprise, Susan is actually moved to love this guy, for whom being on top means he gets the upper bunk when she invites herself over for the night. Josh loses his virginity and thinks life is pretty cool until grownup complications develop — and Billy shows up with the ticket back to childhood.
The show touches all the familiar points of the movie: the hysteria of Josh’s mother (Barbara Walsh) when big Josh appears; the frightening first night in the city and meeting MacMillan at FAO Schwarz, where they play Chopsticks on a keyboard you play with your feet; Josh’s hilarious first encounter with caviar.
But in every case, the tone is off. The run-in with Mom is given short shrift; the intimate encounter with MacMillan becomes the occasion for a big, incongruous dance number; the caviar scene is burlesqued and, unforgivably, repeated.
One scene actually improves on the film, because it looks at the story in theatrical terms. When Josh realizes he’s about to have that grownup encounter with Susan (in her office!), little Josh emerges to sing, in a haunting falsetto , the lovely “I Want to Know.”
Though Jenkins looks and sounds a lot like Tom Hanks, he’s an equally ingratiating actor, and it’s hard to hold the resemblance against him. Moore is another matter. Susan is a difficult character to warm to — she’s such yuppie scum at first that when her unpleasant boyfriend Paul (the equally unpleasant Gene Weygandt) sees the writing on the wall and dumps her, you figure, score one for Paul. It’s Susan’s vulnerability that wins you over, her openness to the idea of her own reawakening.
Moore is difficult to warm to as well; she’s brittle and neurotic in a performance that demands the heart and generosity of a first-rate comedian (as Elizabeth Perkins was in the movie). Moore does sing beautifully, and Maltby and Shire have given her a nice anthem, “Dancing All the Time,” as well as a lovely duet with Jenkins, “Stars, Stars, Stars.”
The best song in the score is Mama Baskin’s “Stop, Time,” but both the number and Walsh, a wonderful actress, are wasted: Why is she singing this wistful lament in a mall, to someone else’s kid?
Unfortunately, “Big” is the kind of show that makes everyone involved seem bland and tired. This is, after all, the extraordinary directing and design team responsible for the Shubert’s previous tenant, the glorious “Crazy for You.” But because “Big” has very little electricity, there’s not much Ockrent can do besides stage manage.
While Stroman paid tribute to Tommy Tune in the whimsical way with dancers she displayed in “Crazy,” here the homage seems strained, particularly in the toy store scene, where she has the entire company sitting on the piano, dancing only from the waist down. It’s the kind of dance that Tune put across with utter finesse (as he did in the locker-room scene in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”) but here seems awkward.
Stroman does better with the kids in suburbia, making the comedic most of all those knobby joints and spindly limbs. And in Lizzy Mack, who plays young Josh’s love interest, the choreographer has found a star-in-the-making and shows her off to great effect. She’ll be playing Kim MacAfee and singing “One Boy” before you know it.
Robin Wagner has supplied about a dozen settings, but only two enchant: a lantern-hung restaurant in the first act, and the spooky amusement park warehouse in which the finale takes place. Everything else — even a carnival with a faux roller coaster, and a mall — is tackily two-dimensional.
The biggest disappointment, given the well-documented involvement of FAO Schwarz on the show, is the re-creation of the famed Fifth Avenue toy store, which lacks the wonderful excess of the real thing.
William Ivey Long has dressed the kids in colors and the adults mostly in uncomfortable-looking serious attire — black, navy, gray and the like. Paul Gallo’s lighting tends to be garish and unwelcoming. And that’s the thing about “Big”: It ought to be a heartfelt story throughout. But after a slow, 85-minute first act and a somewhat peppier second, the show only comes together in the final scene.
The film’s deserted amusement park locale and drive back home are effectively compressed and transposed to a dark warehouse in which Zoltar, the mechanical fortune teller, is stored. At long last, the tone is right: The gloominess heightens Susan’s sadness and sense of loss, Josh’s mixture of regret and relief.
While the switch back to little Josh is handled relatively clumsily, the emotional resonance of Josh’s return — Mom even shows up for a teary-eyed clutch as the curtain falls — had the people around me sniffling.
The issues of product placement and blatant hawking will doubtless be of more concern to critics than to theatergoers. I suspect the audience that seeks out “Big” will like it, regardless of the notices. With an advance that should allow some time for happy customers to get the word out, “Big” just may find its audience.