Smaller 'Big' still not the movie Review: The musical has been retooled from the Broadway flop with some new songs and a different focus.

October 09, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Reducing the scale of the Broadway megamusical "Big" for the road may have been a good idea. But the physical production isn't all that's gotten smaller.

The musical, currently at the Mechanic Theatre, is based on the 1988 Tom Hanks movie about a 12-year-old named Josh Baskin who makes a wish at a carnival to be "big." When his wish is magically granted, he suddenly becomes a 12-year-old trapped in an adult body.

Actor Jim Newman's big Josh, however, isn't an adult-size 12-year-old; he's more like an adult-size 7-year-old. Whether it's Newman's interpretation or that of director Eric D. Schaeffer, this big Josh is less an adolescent than a young child -- from his balled-up fists to the gee-whiz expression on his face.

The discrepancy throws off the balance of a show that, in other respects, appears to have corrected some of the difficulties that led it to become one of the costliest failures in Broadway history.

In a major rehabilitation effort, lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., composer David Shire and book writer John Weidman all returned to re-tool "Big" for this 35-city tour. They replaced some of the Broadway songs with ones that had been cut, added new ones and zeroed in on the love story between big Josh and Susan, a co-worker at the toy company where he gets a job.

The love story is why Josh's age is such a delicate and crucial issue. It is awkward enough, though in a sweetly comic way, for Susan to fall in love with a man who's really just 12. However, if his behavior and body language suggest he's considerably younger than that, we wonder what she sees in him, and the notion of romance becomes a little creepy.

Nor does it help that Jacquelyn Piro's Susan is initially so unsympathetic and calculating. If she appeared to see something in Josh beyond another rung up the corporate ladder, then her eventual transformation into a softer, gentler human being would be easier to accept.

The show's creators have said one of their goals was to tell more of the story through music. And, indeed, the score flows almost nonstop.

One of the ways director Schaeffer has pared down the production is by trimming the size of the chorus. A telling indication of the wisdom of this decision is that the score's best songs are its solos and duets, such as Susan's song of self-discovery, "Little Susan Lawrence"; the poignant lament "Stop Time," stirringly delivered by Judy McLane as Josh's mother; and "I Want to Know," a clever duet sung by both big Josh and his little counterpart (Joseph Medeiros).

The production features a number of strong performances, most notably those of Brett Tabisel as Josh's best friend, Ron Holgate as the head of the toy company and Leslie Stevens as big Josh's secretary. And, despite portraying big Josh as too little, Newman has a smooth singing style and is an especially nimble dancer.

Zach Brown's set, though largely two-dimensional, is serviceable and contains some elements of whimsy, such as a sofa whose seat is shaped like an enormous hamburger with a hot dog as a backrest. However, "Big's" trademark giant keyboard, on which Newman and Holgate dance out a few tunes, needs tinkering. Actually, the keyboard itself is fine, and the angled mirrors that allow the audience to see all the keys are nifty. But there's nothing to indicate where this keyboard is located. The toy store setting in the previous scene inexplicably drifts away, leaving the keyboard totally out of context.

In terms of pacing and tone, the second act is far more brisk and involving. Scattered throughout the production are snags that need to be fixed, beginning with the fact that big Josh and little Josh should have the same haircut. And William Ivey Long's costumes, among the only design holdovers from Broadway, are surprisingly unflattering.

More fundamentally, any time a musical is adapted from a previous source, the ultimate question becomes whether the musical improves on, or adds anything to, the source. The movie "Big" certainly seemed ripe for musicalization, thanks to its expressions of youthful exuberance, romance and parental longing. Most of all, however, the movie was endearing -- more so, it turns out, than the musical, which does not yet seem to have come of age.

'Big, The Musical' Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 7: 30 p.m. today through Sunday (no performance Friday); matinees 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $31.50-$57.50

Call: 410-752-1200

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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