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Big (04/28/1996 - 10/13/1996)


 

New York Daily News: "What a 'Big' Letdown"

I was the ideal audience for a musical version of "Big," because I'm one of the few living Americans who did not see the movie and thus cannot make invidious comparisons.

So if I didn't enjoy it and I regret to say I didn't it's not because it didn't live up to my expectations. It's because it doesn't fulfill its potential.

In case you're one of the other six people who didn't see the movie, it's about Josh, a boy who makes a wish to be a grownup. His wish is granted. He wakes up the next morning with his 12-year-old mind intact but with an adult's body. As he sings, looking down into his crotch: "Big!"

He spends a little time in the "adult" world, where, not surprisingly, he becomes a success as a toy designer.

Equally unsurprisingly, he soon wants nothing more than to be a child again.

Admittedly, a story like this which hinges on the difference between being a kid and being a grownup is not easy to tell at a time when the distinctions between the two are so blurred.

This is apparent in the show's opening number. After a splendid if brief overture, the curtain rises on a group of pre-adolescents dancing as if they're auditioning for a Wonder Bread touring company of "Bring in 'da Noise/ Bring in 'd a Funk."

There was a time when adults did adult dances, and kids danced like kids. Now, dancers of all ages gyrate with the full libidinal surge of adolescence.

If these very young dancers already behave like they're years older than they are, if they've already lost their innocence, what point does the plot have?

Then there's the casting. Daniel Jenkins plays the "big" Josh. A wonderfully talented young man, he registers exactly that young man. We must constantly remind ourselves that he's actually a boy.

At one point, young Josh stands alongside his older counterpart to emphasize the disparity an example of how effortful the show is, which greatly reduces its charm.

All the songs are intelligently conceived, but few have any emotional impact.

There is a funny scene in the second act when Josh attends a "grownup" dinner party and behaves like a child. But much of the second act, when Josh invades the toy company, seems like a pallid homage to "How to Succeed in Business WIthout Really Trying."

Crista Moore handles the tricky role of Josh's adult girlfriend very savvily. Barbara Walsh is very sympathetic as his mother, and Jon Cypher is wonderfully crusty as the toy company's boss.

Patrick Levis is appealing as young Josh, and Gene Weygandt is solid as the rival of the older Josh. Brett Tabisel, a remarkably talented child, is hilarious as Josh's boyhood pal.

Most of Robin Wagner's designs here are droll takes on the bland surfaces of suburbia and Madison Avenue, but for the last scene he has created a haunting, phantasmagoric warehouse of carnival creatures. This set suggests the wonder of childhood in a way that nothing else in the show does.

Susan Stroman's choreography has great energy. Mike Ockrent's direction keeps everything moving smoothly along, but nothing not even the cast's high spirits can disguise the show's essentially mechanical nature.


New York Daily News
04/29/1996

New York Post: "One 'Big' bore"

The big news about "BIG," the new musical opening at the Shubert theater last night, is the Shubert Theater.

The Shubert Organization has refurbished it. I'm told that backstage there are new marvels of hydraulics and bridges - but even front stage we have new carpeting, a rather tasteless paint-job (the theater was never a La Fenice!) and, best of all, new seats.

The seats are terrific. Really comfortable. Now, if the Shuberts would only consider making them totally reclineable - as in the better-class of airline seats - and perhaps have smiling people walking up the aisles offering goodies and videos, we might be getting somewhere.

But, as they say in my business, how did you enjoy the show, Mrs. Lincoln? Well, let me admit, I have seen many better. And not too many worse. But none in more comfortable seats! They should even install this kind of seat for by-standers in stores - such as FAO Schwarz.

Which brings me, I suppose, back to the small matter in hand - "BIG."

"BIG" was once a Penny Marshall movie - a quite moving movie, and a very funny movie - starring Tom Hanks, not yet in winning Academy Award mode, but shrewdly cute. It should have been left that way.

Surprisingly few movies - from "On the Waterfront" backwards - make good musicals, and "Big" is not going to impair, or even dent, this track record.

The story, as you may recall, is that familiar device of a youngster, this time an 11-year-old, wishing he were older and bigger, and waking up in the body of a 30-year-old, with, of course, his child innocence intact.

Actually, John Weidman's book for the musical, which clings closely to the movie, provides the best part of the bemusingly dull evening, and even this is not nearly so effective as Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg's original screenplay.

Take for example, the key incident when the young hero, Josh, wants to take a slightly taller girl on a fair-ground Big Dipper, and is officiously rebuffed because he cannot reach the height requirement for the ride.

In the movie, this was a scene of great pathos that somehow encapsulated something of the pain and pangs of growing up. In the musicial it's little more than a sight gag.

Even the giant electronic "dancing piano" upon which the freshly adultivated Josh and his new friend, an elderly toy manufacturer, play chopsticks, goes for surprisingly little, failing even to find directorial focus in the chaos of a scene all too apparently set in the toy emporium of one of the show's backers, the above-mentioned FAO Schwarz.

But what really capsizes and sinks the musical is the music. David Shire (music) and Richarld Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) have tried for years to write a hit Broadway musical.

Unfortunately, their songs always seem to emerge as semi-effective, semi-forgettable cabaret numbers more suitable for darkened supper clubs than Broadway stages. Here, few - a number called "Stars, Stars, Stars," perhaps - will achieve even such smoky currency.

I suppose the people made responsible for putting this pallid entertainment on stage have done their best. However it's not a particularly impressive best.

The scenery by Robin Wagner looks unexpectedly cheap, and only vouchsafes any imagination in its last scene set in an abandoned carnival warehouse, while the costumes by William Ivey Long are, necessarily perhaps, variations on a mall theme.

Mike Ockrent, as director, and especially Susan Stroman as choreographer, energetically try to whip the musical into shape, but dead horses rarely revive with fogging.

Everything is busy but also pointless - the dancing seems influenced by hip-hop, but anyone who saw the Ghettoriginals' show at Minetta Lane earlier in the season will be less than impressed.

Performances rarely transcend their material, and these don't.

Daniel Jenkins as the big Josh and Crista Moore as his love interest try valiantly, but the only two performances to show much guts, gusto or feeling, are those from young Brett Tabisel as the junior Josh's best friend, and Jon Cypher, in the old Robert Loggia role of the childlike toy manufacturer.

So, what more can be said? Who on earth were the producers' target audience for this?

Well, I suppose it could be recommended for tourists who, after a hard day's shopping and sightseeing, want to relax in a comfortable chair and let watery music wash over them, but can't find a spot in a suitable hotel lounge.

For them, this might be just the ticket.


New York Post
04/26/1996

New York Times: "A Child Who Exuberantly Finds His Inner Man"

Forget about watershed musicals for the moment and consider "Big," the bright, shiny, larger-than-life toy of a show that opened last night at the Shubert Theater. It doesn't have a solemn thought in its head, although the thoughts it does have are sometimes primal. It's like the nine-foot teddy bear that participates in one of its glitzy production numbers: a bit awkward at first, but endearingly familiar and, when it dances, so exuberantly gifted that it gives you the helium high of a balloon flight.

In case you slept through 1988 and haven't been near a video store since, "Big" is an adaptation of the Tom Hanks megahit movie about a 12-year-old New Jersey boy who, furious with the frustrations of his dawning adolescence, wishes to be big and suddenly is.

Overnight, Josh Baskin becomes tall, hairy and, to all outward appearances, a man of 30. Inside, he's still a generic suburban kid with a passion for electronic games, sports and girls more or less his age who have somehow outgrown him.

The film is a charmer, but not exactly the kind of classic that shouldn't be reimagined as a Broadway show, particularly a Broadway show that, as choreographed by Susan Stroman, seems to have its feet planted firmly in midair much of the time. You don't have to worry about those horror stories you heard when the production was trying out in Detroit: about problems with the book, about musical numbers' being pulled out, rewritten or replaced, and even about the blatant promotion of F. A. O. Schwarz, Fifth Avenue, the toy store that's one of the show's producers and one of its principal settings.

Although Ms. Stroman remains behind the scenes, she's the most conspicuous star of "Big," which was directed by Mike Ockrent, has a score by David Shire (music) and Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics), and was written by John Weidman.

Whatever the collaborators did in Detroit has paid off. Among other things, "Big" is (at long last) an answer to "Beauty and the Beast." Here's a show for kids who have outgrown fairy tales but aren't yet so jaded that a stroll through F. A. O. Schwarz doesn't aggravate their itch to acquire. Which, of course, could mean that it's for people of any age. The store is receiving the kind of publicity that the Disney people might envy but, as a New York landmark of sorts, it's also integral to this show.

"Big" has been fabricated with Broadway savvy and verve, though for all of its professionalism it seldom seems to push too hard. In part this is because of the funny, laid-back performance by Daniel Jenkins (Tony-nominated for his performance as Huck Finn in "Big River"), who creates a thoroughly winning grown-up Josh.

Singing and dancing with easy authority, Mr. Jenkins is beguiling as a transformed boy who, having run away to Manhattan, rises to spectacular authority as the chief idea man at MacMillan Toys. The boy may be on the eve of his 13th birthday, bewildered by the newly exotic world of corporate ambition and interoffice sex, but he's never so intimidated that he can't enjoy the perks that come his way. At the same time, he never loses his innocence. He suggests both Bobby, the blank slate at the center of "Company," and J. Pierrepont Finch (from "How to Succeed in Business"), but he's a Finch who hasn't yet forgotten his mother.

The other standout performances are those of Patrick Levis, who plays Young Josh, and pint-sized Brett Tabisel, who appears as Billy, Young Josh's somewhat more sophisticated best friend.

Mr. Levis has the kind of firm but almost self-effacing stage presence you don't often find in child actors. He sings with a sweetness that gives an eerie, unexpected poignancy to the show when Young Josh, standing to one side, watches his older self in a love scene with Susan (Crista Moore). The song, "I Want to Know," expresses the boy's infinite curiosity about the future, his apprehension and even his sense of being abandoned by his own self. A strange moment, and not one easily reproduced in an ordinary movie.

Inside Mr. Tabisel there's an impatient stand-up comic waiting to cut loose. Yet he's kept in hilarious check by the young actor as his Billy shares the older Josh's adventures and becomes increasingly critical of his pal's high life in the big city. It's not easy for Billy, but then, it's not easy for Josh, having everything he does observed by a runty teen-age chaperone whose voice has just changed.

When first seen, Ms. Moore's Susan is all naked ambition and moral compromise as the MacMillan company's vice president in charge of marketing. (Josh asks politely, "Does that mean getting the groceries?") As she is redeemed by Josh, he's made a man by her, although it's a love that cannot be. Also giving an enthusiastic performance is Jon Cypher as the eccentric president of the toy company, who discovers Josh at F. A. O. Schwarz and joins him in what turns into the splashiest sequence of the show. It begins as "Chopsticks" danced on a giant piano keyboard and quickly escalates into one of Ms. Stroman's most athletic and heady production numbers.

You probably won't leave the theater humming anything but "Chopsticks"; the Shire and Maltby score is attractive, serving the purposes of the show without being especially memorable. "Big" comes to a dead halt only once, when Josh's mother (Barbara Walsh) must sing "Stop, Time," in which she laments the loss of her son. She has a lovely voice and the song is quite nice, but "Big" is as much about lonely moms as it is about the problem of runaway children.

The show follows the screenplay with as much fidelity as is possible on the stage. Many of the lines are funny for recalling the movie, although Mr. Weidman also has written a number of others that sound brand new. MacMillan executives, being urged to come up with an idea for a best-selling toy, are reminded that "factories all over Taiwan are waiting." Mr. Weidman's book departs from the movie in relating the circumstances that finally persuade the puffed-up Josh that perhaps he should go home. It's the best of the show's original inspirations.

Credit, too, Ms. Stroman's corps of extraordinary young dancers, listed in the program as the Big Kids. They ride skateboards and do hip-hop, ballet turns, break dance and forward flips. They're unstoppable. Note particularly Lizzy Mack. She doubles as one of the Big Kids and as Cynthia Benson, the 13-year-old blond beauty that every 12-year-old boy, like Josh, has lost at least once.

Among the marvels of Robin Wagner's set design are a carnival with a roller coaster, a restaurant suggesting Tavern on the Green, and the New York Port Authority bus terminal, where Josh is interested to note that "the girl who stopped to help me had a beard."

The weightiest lesson to be learned from "Big": With 25 cents and a mechanized carnival magician, you can take the man out of the boy, but no amount of magic can ever take the boy out of the man who really is a boy. Or, put a disguised kid into the middle of a cocktail party for Manhattan achievers and, sooner or later, he's bound to look like a hungry, homesick slob with beluga caviar on his shirt.

It worked as a movie. It works as a show.


New York Times
04/29/1996

Variety: "Big -- The Musical"

"Big" is OK, a long loaf of Wonder Bread in a season of rich with grainier fare. The mostly pedestrian product of creative and design teams that have done much better work elsewhere, the show nonetheless delivers something of the 1988 film's final payoff, and that's what ticketbuyers will take home. The recent Broadway past is littered with failed musicals drawn from populare movies, and if "Big" seems unlikely to recoup a budget reputed to have gone considerably higher than the $10 million advertised, it should please family audiences looking for wholesome fare - at least until something better comes along.

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.


Variety
04/28/1996

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