Little to ‘Big’ and back, in a flash
By Jane Horwitz
Monday, October 1, 2012
Nowadays, if a 12-year-old kid disappears from his room one morning, his mom has the police and the FBI on the case in a flash.
Not so in the safe, neon-colored world of “Big, the Musical,” bubbling away at Adventure Theatre MTC through Oct. 28. Josh Baskin (Marley McKay) just phones his mom (Kate Fisher) and tells her he needs to be away for a while, but he’ll be back, and she accepts it.
Mrs. Baskin’s little boy made an errant wish the night before to Zoltar, a genie in an arcade game. He only asked to be tall enough to meet the height requirement for a carnival ride. Now he’s a man, but with a 12-year-old’s heart and mind.
There’s charm and poignancy amid the hijinks in this pared-down rendering, based on the 1996 Broadway show and the reimagined 1997 touring version staged by none other than Signature Theatre’s Eric Schaeffer. The original source is the 1988 hit film starring Tom Hanks.
Adventure Theatre MTC’s Michael J. Bobbitt and Jeff Frank, of First Stage children’s theater in Milwaukee, have adapted “Big, the Musical” into a 70-minute theater-for-young-audiences piece. The result is highly diverting for kids, but not without a few glitches.
The abbreviated script has abrupt transitions that make the narrative hard to follow at times. And a romantic subplot between big Josh (Greg Maheu) and Susan (Janine Sunday), the unknowing executive at the toy company where Josh works during his accidental adulthood, feels awkward and promotes fidgets.
But Bobbitt’s staging has something fun perpetually around the corner, so kids aren’t likely to quibble. McKay’s young Josh is shy unto comical paralysis in front of his school crush, Cynthia (Talia Brenner), and Brendan DeBonis’s Billy is a perfect wiseacre as Josh’s best friend. DeBonis proves equally comfortable kidding around with Maheu’s big Josh. And Maheu brings a touching naiveté, a sweet voice and a gangly physicality to a tricky, emotionally complex role.
When big Josh wins over toy magnate Mr. MacMillan (Lawrence Munsey) by offering critiques of toys at MacMillan’s store, the scene plays to perfection. But then, in the musical number “Fun,” Josh and MacMillan dance a quick soft-shoe to “Chopsticks” on a painted keyboard. This is a nod to that priceless moment originated in the movie, but it is so brief and low-tech, it feels like an afterthought here.
The protean cast gets to frolic in front of Elizabeth McFadden’s handsome backdrop of geometrical flats decorated with LED lights and echoing a Manhattan skyline.
Kendra Rai’s costumes capture both the thrown-together look of kids and comically dull Manhattan corporate couture. The show’s tunes by David Shire (music) and Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics) are less than hum-worthy, but they’re lively, they propel the story and they’re more than ably sung over recorded orchestrations.
Inevitably, big Josh grows a little cocky in his new life. When he disses Billy, his friend chides, “I’m your best friend. What’s more important than that?” Bereft and lonely once more, Josh mends his friendship, and the story tumbles to an abrupt end as the boys track down the Zoltar machine and are able to reverse the magic so Josh can go home to Mom.
Things happen really fast in “Big, the Musical,” and that’s fine. But an audience barely has time to ponder the sweetness of a story in which a child visits adulthood ahead of schedule, yet still gets his childhood back to savor in real time.