Based on the 1988 film starring a young Tom Hanks, Big The Musical features music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. Opening on Broadway in 1996, the show closed after 193 performances having not been received well and is known as one of Broadway’s costliest flops. The show then went through an overhaul with extensive re-writes from the authors for a 1997 US tour and Big The Musical became a hit! On this side of the pond, the show had it’s UK premiere at the Theatre Royal Plymouth and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in 2016. Transferring to the West End, it’s now London’s turn to see Big The Musical as the show opens at the Dominion Theatre for a strictly limited season.
Just like the iconic film, Big The Musical is a joyous, heart-warming show about 12 year-old Josh Baskin who longs to be big. When a mysterious Zoltar machine grants his wish, he finds himself trapped inside an adult’s body and he is forced to live and work in a grown-up world and his childlike innocence has a transforming effect on the adults he encounters.
In this Theatre Royal Plymouth production Jay McGuiness (The Wanted) plays Josh, Kimberly Walsh (Girls Aloud, Strictly Come Dancing, Princess Fiona in Shrek The Musical, Elf the Musical, Sweet Charity at Cadogan Hall) as Susan, Wendi Peters (Cilla Battersby Brown in Coronation Street) as Mrs Baskin and Matthew Kelly (Funny Peculiar, Waiting For Godot, Sign of the Times, Lend Me A Tenor!, Of Mice and Men) as George MacMillan.
As Josh’s Mum Mrs Baskin, Wendi Peters has some lovely moments as the confused, scared mother searching for her lost child. Delivering a solid performance throughout, Peters act two solo was extremely striking as she beautifully sang of her concern for her lost child and her longing to turn back the clock in Stop, Time. As Susan, Kimberly Walsh was a delight. Giving her all to each scene and song, Walsh delivered a strong performance proving the once Girls Aloud singer is extremely at home on the West End stage. As Josh, Jay McGuiness looked every bit the leading man and he danced exceptionally well throughout the production. His characterisation however seemed laboured, lacking a youthful exuberance other than his own boyish charm that didn’t project into the large Dominion Theatre space sufficiently. Delivering a somewhat thin pop vocal, McGuiness seemed to be disconnected and unaware of the audience and as a result his Josh was hard to connect or emphasize with. Matthew Kelly as George MacMillan was a lot of fun. While the songs he was given seemed low for his voice, his scenes were some of the most welcome reprises of the evening. Kelly’s confident performance as the head of MacMillan Toys delivered a likeable, exuberant and believable character who the audience could identify with.
Simon Higlett’s design was the real star of this production. A detailed, 80s, high octane extravaganza that combined a revolving stage, two large two-storied houses and large moving screens. Higlett’s amped-up design encompassed the Dominion’s stage from footlights to proscenium often extending effects into the audience. However, the most famous scene in which Josh and George MacMillan really connect while playing Heart and Soul on a floor piano was disappointingly achieved through a lighting and screen effect rather than having the actors perform the number live. Chris Fisher’s illusions were sparse but extremely effective. Transformations from young to old Josh and a surprising disappearing young Josh effect at the top of the second act, were simple but achieved exceptionally well really adding a welcome aspect of magic to the show.
Big The Musical is an adaption of a well-known and much loved film soaked with nostalgia. While the film is a lot of fun and a thirteen-year-old boys dream, it suffers as a product of it’s time and despite revisions doesn’t seem to be translated well to the stage. John Weidman’s book has many holes with characters we meet once and never see again (Josh’s Dad and Josh’s sister/brother/baby that cries… and that’s really it), sub-plot that fizzles out to nothing and literal dialogue that is tedious and at times cringe-worthy. David Shire’s music is mostly unmemorable and Richard Maltby Jr’s lyrics seem simplistic. The score includes unnecessary multiple reprises of songs giving no new information or moving the story or characters along and songs about characters we never meet, evident in Susan’s reflective My Secretary’s In Love. Big The Musical seems to have songs shoe-horned in, so many that the audience doesn’t get the chance to get to know the characters through scenes and as a result becomes restless easily. I believe a heavy-handed and talented dramaturg is needed to turn Big The Musical into the nostalgic, exuberant, magical show it should be and I hope we have the opportunity to see another re-worked production in the future.
If you’re keen to see some of your favourite moments from the film live on stage then this production is for you. However, while Big The Musical at the Dominion Theatre is an impressive spectacle, the show itself lacks heart, substance and any real standout performances.
Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Alastair Muir
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