Following its award-winning productions of Zanna, Don’t and Assassins, West Coast Ensemble continues its winning streak of musical hits with a sensational intimate staging of Big The Musical.
As the current 17 Again, 2004’s 13 Going On 30, and the 1988 Tom Hanks smash Big prove, the body/age switching movie remains a Hollywood favorite. Not surprisingly, Broadway decided to try its hand at it, in 1996, with a musicalization of Big (music by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., and book by John Weidman). Despite its five Tony nominations, though, the original New York production flopped, closing after only 193 performances. A much rewritten 1997 national tour did considerably better, both critically and at the box office, but regional Big The Musical remountings remain fairly rare. Thus, it should come as no surprise that WCE’s amalgam of the original and touring productions, scaled down to 99-seat theater proportions, attracted one of the largest Opening Night concentrations of reviewers and musical theater performers in recent memory, and judging by the cheers (including many by this reviewer), Big looks to be a Big hit indeed.
Director Richard Israel’s decision to meld the best of the original with the best of the revisions creates one of the most infectiously joyous (and poignant) musical concoctions I’ve seen in quite some time.
Working on master designer Stephen Gifford’s marvelously versatile (and great looking) set, the combined talents of Israel, his stellar cast, and musical director Daniel Thomas impress from the get-go—an overture which introduces the show’s “kids” in a montage of “real life” video images and matching on-stage poses, setting the scene for 12-year-old Josh Baskin’s body-changing wish to be “big.”
In “Can’t Wait,” which features Christine Lakin’s oh-so-inventive choreography (samba steps alternating with mechanical toy moves performed by the multitalented ensemble), we meet a number of Big’s cast of characters: Josh, Josh’s parents, his best friend Billy, and the object of Josh’s affections, the precociously curvaceous Cynthia Benson.
Then, one evening when a carnival is passing through town (Lisa D. Katz’s lighting rating major kudos here), Billy encourages Josh to “Talk To Her.” Unfortunately, Josh finds that despite Cynthia’s declaring him “cute,” a boy with a driver’s license trumps cuteness any day, a discovery made even more humiliating when Josh is refused entry to the Wild Thunder ride because he doesn’t meet the minimum height requirement. No wonder when Josh happens upon a mysterious arcade game, “Zoltar Speaks,” and the all-powerful Zoltar (a particularly spooky video effect inside a TV screen) commands him to “Make your wish,” the 12-year-old is more than ready to do just that.
Lights down on “little” Josh, lights up on “BIG” Josh waking up in a pair of PJs way too skimpy for his now grown-up body. Since there’s no way to possibly convince Mom that this big boy is really her little boy, Josh escapes to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where he manages to persuade Billy of his real identity with their secret handshake. His best buddy offers to help him find a carnival with a Zoltar Speaks, but the boys learn that it will take three to four weeks for a list of touring carnivals and locations to arrive.
Fortunately, Josh doesn’t have to spend a second night among the homeless (“That girl who stopped to help me has a beard”). A visit to FAO Schwartz leads to a meeting with toy company head Mr. MacMillan, who’s so impressed with Josh’s knowledge of toys and their appeal to kids that he offers Josh a job right there on the spot. Fortunately for Josh, MacMillan’s company isn’t particularly strict with employee credentials, and before you know it, the now big 12-year-old has his own private office—and a bunch of fuddy-duddy fellow execs (with MBAs) not terribly happy to have this upstart in their midst.
The one exception is Susan Lawrence, VP in charge of Marketing. (Josh thinks this means she’s the one who buys the groceries.) The unlucky-in-love Susan is trying to get out of yet another bad relationship (this time with a fellow executive) and finds the sweet, sincere, and utterly guileless Josh precisely what the doctor ordered, leaving Josh torn between the possibility of love and (gasp) sex with a beautiful “older” woman—and a 12-year-old’s desire just to go home.
There’s not an easy resolution to this problem, as fans of the film well know, and this is what gives Big The Musical real poignancy amidst the laughs and romance and songs and dances.
None of this would work without the endearing, adorable, and utterly believable work of Will Collyer as the adult Josh. Even at twice the size and more than twice the age of “little” Josh, Collyer never lets you forget for an instant that there’s a 12-year-old inside this grown man’s body. This triple-threat talent charms from the get go, so it’s no wonder that Mr. MacMillian (Larry Lederman stepping into this major role with a week’s notice and nailing it) and Susan (the divine Darrin Revitz) will fall under his spell.
Revitz’s work in the equally one-worded Assassins, Twist, and Beaverquest has left no doubt that this is a musical theater star on the rise. In Big, Revitz gets the leading role we’ve been waiting to see her in, and one which is a particularly fine fit for the dazzling redhead. Revitz transitions affectingly from cynical to sweet, the palpable chemistry she shares with Collyer leaving no doubt that she’s found the right Mr. Right (if only he didn’t have that pesky secret).
In the role of Billy, soon-to-be 14 Sterling Beaumon continues his trajectory from child actor to teen leading man with his best role and performance yet, his Polish-boy rap in “It’s Time” being an Act 2 standout. As the young Josh, I.J. Benet is so winning that it’s a shame the plot sends him backstage from the moment Josh gets Big. He belts out “Big Boys” (with Beaumon) in a big, big voice, then in one of the show’s most tender scenes, reveals an exquisite boy soprano in “I Want To Know,” reminding us that there is still a 12-year-old inside Collyer’s about-to-become-a-man-tonight adult body.
Lisa Picotte shows us a mom’s longing for her missing child in a beautifully acted “Stop Time,” though she seemed a bit hoarse on opening night. Stephen Vendette is appropriately snotty as Susan’s ex.
The adult ensemble (Johanna Kent, Frank Romeo, Jake Wesley Stewart, and Sara J. Stuckey) do all-around terrific work in a variety of roles, and are very funny indeed as Susan’s pretentious friends in the four-part gavotte “The Real Thing.” (“Do you feel you have to be approved by us? You do!”) The kids (Ashley Marie Arnold and Joseph Castanon) are equally splendid as are the “tweens” (Coby Getzug and Alex Scolari), who get to straddle both ensembles.
In his “DJ booth” above the action, musical director Thomas surveys the action, mixing live keyboards with his own prerecorded tracks to give the show a bigger sound that one would normally expect in a small theater, yet one which never drowns out the cast’s gloriously unmiked voices
Lakin’s innovative choreography manages to fit a dozen or so dancers onto the El Centro Theatre’s small stage, no small feat. Gifford’s set design manages to hide a bunk bed in its insides, an equally big feat. Katz’s lighting fits every mood to perfection. Cricket Myers’ sound design once again proves her one of L.A. top talents. Sharon McGunigle’s costumes run the gamut from kids’ wear to business suits to adult Josh’s trademark red Converse high tops. Big was assistant directed by Suzanne Doss, stage managed by Amy E. Stoddard, and produced by The Graduate star Ben Campbell.
Israel’s blending of original and tour versions wisely restores Josh’s sadly wistful “I Want To Go Home” (cut from the tour), keeps the tour’s jaunty “Big Boys,” and excises a couple of Tour Susan’s somewhat extraneous songs. The tour substitution of Mrs. Baskin’s “Say Good Morning To Mom” for Josh’s stunned “This Isn’t Me” should have been switched back, though. Mrs. B’s song is a cute one, and makes for a great cabaret number, but is “off-topic” in a show that should be about Josh (and Mrs. B. still has her chance to shine in “Stop Time.”). I also would have liked to hear Revitz sing “One Special Man,” one of the original show’s best songs, which got the ax in the tour.
Remaining from Broadway are the infectious “Can’t Wait,” “Fun” (with its justly famed feet-on-giant-sized-piano-keys choreography), the gorgeous “Stars,” the bang-up Act 1 finale “Cross The Line,” the sexy wink-wink “Coffee Black,” and Susan’s exquisite “Dancing All The Time.”
The show’s only big misstep is its unsatisfying last ten seconds. It’s as if the person in the lighting booth turned the lights off a scene too soon, and the cast just decided to skip the ending and get to their curtain calls a minute or so ahead of time. A Big in which we don’t see Josh reunited with his mom robs the audience of the payoff it’s been waiting for. Easy to fix, and I hope it will be.
Minor quibbles in a show which is sure to thrill and delight and enchant audiences of all ages, and one which once again demonstrates the magic our Equity Waiver theaters can work on big Broadway shows. Big may be a good deal smaller here than it was at New York’s Shubert Theater, but it’s likely to be a much bigger hit at the El Centro—and that is BIG (and welcome) news for L.A. theatergoers.
West Coast Ensemble, El Centro Theatre, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood.
May 8, 2009
Photos: Ty Donaldson