The creators of this enormous new Broadway musical would be well advised to look again at the Penny Marshall film that provided their inspiration: “Big” was big because of truthful relationships, a witty screenplay and plenty of heartwarming sentiment. Such qualities — along with a tuneful score — are missing from this $ 10 million Richard Maltby and David Shire tuner. Without serious overhaul of these theatrical fundamentals, Mike Ockrent’s production will be relying on spectacle, noise and energy for its box office legs.
Given the attendant hype and strong title recognition, one could argue that these might be enough for a respectable run. Courtesy of a well-funded Robin Wagner, “Big” has 12 beautifully realized scenic locations, including a glorious re-creation of the Manhattan FAO Schwarz toy store, a decent facsimile of the Port Authority bus terminal, a carnival with a moving roller coaster, and an entire New Jersey neighborhood replete with two-level interiors.
Designed for exciting transitions, these impressive sets change within only a few musical measures of the rock-influenced and percussion-heavy score, which is amplified beyond usual Broadway levels. And there’s exuberance aplenty onstage. Choreographer Susan Stroman has created vibrant contemporary dance routines, employing rap and hip-hop rhythms, for a cute and talented group of teen hoofers. Playing idealized New Jersey kids, they give the show its most honest moments and its greatest strength with their dancing and acting.
Given the show’s glorification of suburban life, not to mention all the references in the book and lyrics to such contemporary icons as CD-ROMs, Powerbooks and “Seinfeld,” it seems that “Big” is after a young and family audience. But most folks like a little substance with their spectacle. It’s all right there in the source material, and it’s hard to fathom how this show could have missed so much.
“Big” is the now familiar tale of Josh (Daniel Jenkins), an adolescent boy granted his wish for increased stature by a spooky carnival machine, only to find himself subsequently a child trapped in an adult body. After he is discovered playing in a store by a toy-company owner, he rises in the world of plaything development and becomes romantically involved with a damaged but lovely colleague who’s attracted to his innocence.
The 1988 film, starring Tom Hanks, is a marvelous yarn evoking the timeless themes of adolescent insecurity, the power of dreams and the ability of youthful innocence to cut through adult superficiality. Thanks to the ongoing stranger-in-a-strange-land situation, there are plenty of chances for comedy. And the famous keyboard-dancing scene is just one of the many obvious production numbers that suggested “Big” would be comfortable onstage.
Aside from some changes in emphasis and location and necessary simplification , John Weidman’s book follows the screenplay fairly closely. But it fails to capture the wit of the original, resulting in long, prosaic passages with so few laughs that one finds oneself looking forward to the next set change. Most of the hysterically funny scenes in the film — Josh eating caviar, or confusing a sexual position with sleeping in the top bunk — fall terribly flat here. Some of the fault lies with the direction, but the book tends to spend too much time with the insignificant (an endless yuppie party and interminable office scenes) and too little with what’s important to the story (Josh’s transformations and his relationships with the women in his life).
While the score features some pleasing ballads (especially “Stop Time” and “I Want to Know”) and some appealing instrumental themes, the music is generally thin, especially when it comes to up-tempo songs. “Stop Time” would work much better if it came earlier in the show: It’s a criminal waste for the talented Barbara Walsh, as Josh’s mother, to sing the show’s best song in a shopping mall , surrounded by judiciously placed advertisements for fast-food outlets.
The score is surprisingly harsh for Maltby and Shire and desperately needs more melodies that will live beyond the final curtain. The title song, a dissonant and unattractive ditty, should be scrapped entirely. And “Fun,” the big toy-shop production number, is anything but; even “Chopsticks” would have been a better choice.
No changes will make any difference, though, unless the principal actors find more of a connection. Instead of resolutely making the lead role of Josh his own , the tousle-haired Jenkins consistently recalls Hanks’ mannerisms and style, a recipe for disaster. Crista Moore works better as love interest Susan, but you never understand why and at what point her initially self-serving interest in this childlike man turns into genuine romantic affection — such vital human transitions are given insufficient focus in Ockrent’s heavy-handed staging. Only the excellent Walsh finds a way to make us identify with her character’s dilemmas.
That, all in all, is the big problem at the moment: The characters never connect. The comedy lacks timing, the relationships are largely devoid of warmth and believability, and the production consequently fails to stir the hearts of an audience too busy watching its mechanics.
In the keyboard dance, the production takes no time to establish the toy company executive’s (Gene Weygandt) crusty character. When we first notice him, he’s sitting amongst stuffed toys; seeing him prancing on the keyboard a few moments later seems the most natural(and boring) thing in the world, instead of the delightful surprise it should be. Despite Stroman’s ever-building choreography, and some energetic movement from the otherwise uneasy Weygandt, the scene never pays off.
The script’s blatant celebration of FAO Schwarz — a major backer — goes well beyond artistic necessity. “Is this some kind of store or what?” exclaims one character. “There is even a sale going on in the mezzanine!” adds another sycophantic lyric. And an awful, unnecessary coda occurs in the store at Christmas, even though the obvious dramatic climax — Josh’s return to childhood and mother — has already taken place in another location.
Broadway previews are still more than six weeks away, and the technical aspects of this massive show are already smooth. The creative team now needs to reconnect with the warm, human impulses behind the inspiring movie.