On paper the perennially popular 1988 movie ‘Big’ was ripe for musical theatre adaptation, says Brian Finnegan, and while it seems everything is in place for the European premiere, one crucial element is sorely missing.
Over the past couple of decades, adapting beloved movies for the musical stage has become a Broadway cash cow, attracting audiences to pay top dollar for an all-singing, all-dancing experience that’s firmly rooted in shared nostalgia. Movie brands have become globally successful musical franchises, among them Hairspray, Sister Act, Dirty Dancing, Nine to Five, and Legally Blonde, not to mention the Disney movie-to-musical juggernaut, which has The Lion King and Aladdin pulling in big bucks on both Broadway and the West End right now, and a mammoth production of Frozen scheduled for 2018.
Into this mix just over ten years ago came Big: The Musical, based on the 1988 Tom Hanks film about a 12 year-old who grows up overnight, after making a wish on a carnival machine. It opened on Broadway in April 1998, got nominated for five Tony Awards, then closed the following October, becoming one of the Great White Way’s record-breaking money-losers.
Given that credential, it’s an odd choice for the producers of a new revival, which opened at The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre this week for their big Christmas run. The money they’ve gambled on this production is clear and present in every single on-stage moment, and it must have run into the multiple millions. The complex digital set alone makes for one of the most seamless spectacles I’ve seen in a major musical production in a long time.
In every way, Big is ripe for musical adaptation. It’s got magic, kids, adults who act like kids, romance, a toy shop, neon ’80s nostalgia, and a giant piano on which our man-boy hero dances, Gene Kelly style, thereby softening the calcified heart of a capitalist toymaker. This production of Big: The Musical exploits all those elements, particularly the giant piano dance, and does so with huge energy and commitment. Much of it works well – that set is a wonder to behold, the choreography is thrilling, there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and the cast make for a sterling, loveable bunch, but alas there’s something not quite right.
Maybe it’s the amount of story crammed into the first half. Maybe it’s because there’s no proper villain, and therefore little in the way of conflict. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to separate Big from Tom Hanks, who is the largely the reason the film remains a perennial favourite. Or maybe it’s because there’s so many unmemorable songs crammed into it, you don’t leave the theatre humming one of them. I’d say the latter reason is why it failed on Broadway. A show without a catchy song or two is a show that can’t attach itself to an audience, no matter how hard it tries.
This production tries very hard indeed. Trying hardest are the two leads, who like many a musical star of the day both come from the world of pop music, ex-member of The Wanted, Jay McGuiness as the man-boy Josh, and X Factor alumni, Diana Vickers, who plays Josh’s love interest, Susan. McGuiness is a confident stage performer, he imbues Josh with lovable childishness and can sing and dance with ease, while Vickers is an earnest Susan with the pipes to properly belt out a showstopper or two. Pity there are no showstoppers for her to belt out. She sings a passable romantic ballad, ‘Stars’ and her duet with Josh, ‘The Real Thing’ is sweet, but elsewhere her voice gets lost in a miasma of pass-remarkable musical numbers, that try but fail to hook.
The iconic piano moment is charming, and this has much to do with the chemistry between McGuiness and Gary Wilmot as the toymaker Mr MacMillan. There’s a trope with such musicals, whereby the cast return for a big song and dance encore, post curtain call. The ending of Big: The Musical is so flat, this reprise is much needed. It brought the audience I saw it with to their feet, after they’d sat through the bowing of the principals. If you’re looking for spectacle, comedy and singing children this is a production with everything in place. It’s a pity about the songs, though.
Big: The Musical runs at The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until January 7, booking here