Everyone loved the movie “Big,” a touching comedy that helped launch Tom Hanks as a major Hollywood star. The idea to turn the show into a musical seemed all too inviting, but despite several award nominations, the 1996 musical was not a Broadway success and has languished ever since.
To start off their current season, Adventure Theater MTC got permission to create a new version of the musical. I did see a performance of the full show a dozen or so years ago – at Rockville Musical Theater, if I remember correctly – and I noted two problems with the show. This Adventure Theater version ingeniously solves one of those problems, but it does not fully resolve the other.
First, for those who do not remember the film, it was the best of all those age switching comedies that were the rage in the 1980s. Thirteen year old Josh is at that awkward age where he is starting to grow up but in so many ways is still a kid. While at a local carnival, he makes a wish at a fortune teller machine called Zoltar to become ‘big,” and the next morning he wakes up to find himself in his twenties. Well, his body is that old but his mind and emotions are still in junior high. Josh needs to find that Zoltar machine to return to his true age, but the adult world both scares him and beckons him on.
The biggest problem with the original show was the same problem Josh faces. The show was a kid friendly musical trapped inside a full length, adult two and a half hour musical. Adventure Theater MTC wisely chops that show in half, to a sleek 70 minutes. Yes there are favorite movie moments that one misses in this version, and even the iconic toy store piano scene whizzes by all too quickly, but the main story line and characters remain remarkably intact.
What made the movie so popular was the whole age confusion thing. It was as much an adult fantasy of yearning for our carefree childhood as it was a kid’s fantasy of wanting to grow up and not be treated as kids any more. The Adventure Theater MTC version wisely makes these emotional dilemmas the center piece of the show and that holds this compressed version together.
Director Michael Bobbitt keeps it all moving energetically yet smoothly, and set designer Elizabeth McFadden really pulled out all the stops here. The set looks simple at first, but everything can light up at times, such as the carnival scenes, and the whole stage consists of panels that open for set changes and character entrances.
Plus the actors are well chosen, and this is where the partnership with MTC is important because we get talented actors who are the right age. Marley McKay is very believable as a typically insecure seventh grader while Gregory Maheu plays his adult alter ego (the Tom Hanks role) with plenty of childhood innocence. The whole cast is good but there is strong moments for Lawrence Munsey as the toy store owner, Janine Sunday as potential love interest Susan, and Kate Fisher as Josh’s long suffering Mom.
This streamlined format does focus attention on a fascinating character that usually gets lost in the shuffle – Josh’s best friend Billy. While Josh is obviously the main character, Billy is a critically important role and Brendan DeBonis does a great job with him. Billy turns out to be the one character that sees the entire situation, who can function in all these various worlds, and who actually get things done. He also gives Josh a much needed wakeup call late in the play and has one memorable solo moment – complaining in a rap song that he is so frustrated by the situation that here he is complaining in a rap song.
If Adventure Theater MTC had a nifty solution for the problems of the show’s length, they still face that other problem – I just don’t think “Big” is a great musical. The music by David Shire to lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. is competent but rarely memorable. The songs are upbeat, humorous, and they all go down easily but you cannot remember most of them the next day. While this shorter version ejects a lot of the filler material, especially in the second act, what remains consist of the lively act one finale “Cross the Line” and a lot of other material that quickly fades from memory.
You might not notice that in this lively and colorful production. You do miss some things along the way, especially the final scenes which skip over a lot of the more poignant moments of the movie. Enough remains for an entertaining show and perhaps a desire to add the original movie to that Netflix queue.
By David Cannon
Mocovox Entertainment Critic