Really Big Show

A neglected musical is awkwardly but charmingly brought to life.

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Big: The Musical Rocky River High School Auditorium, 20951 Detroit Road, Rocky River Through June 24

Presented by Rocky River Community Theatre


Big boy Joe Fornadel, with Beth Yager.
Big boy Joe Fornadel, with Beth Yager.
In a decade noted for such nihilistic films as The Shining and Wall Street, 1988's Big emerged as a milkshake antidote to those bitter martinis. It's an endearing fantasy about a 12-year-old boy who, in a fit of frustration, wishes he were "big" and magically wakes up to find himself with the body of a man in his 30s -- Tom Hanks at his most charming. This gentle fantasy pointed filmgoers back to the populist ideals of Frank Capra and the wry childhood reveries in the pages of Mark Twain.

Then, in 1996, came Big: The Musical, a thoughtful, charismatic retelling of the film. Like its source material, it captured that sweet paradox of children yearning for the mysterious freedom of adulthood, while adults try to free themselves from their complicated lives by rediscovering the joy and innocence of childhood. This intelligently wrought musical was gobbled up and spit out by a Broadway interested only in the pyrotechnics of Andrew Lloyd Webber marathons. The show unfairly wilted and expired in less than six months.

It's indicative of this area's obsession with the tried and familiar that such an enchanting work is making its Northeast Ohio premiere at a community theater. Those who run local theaters believe that Clevelanders only want to see what's officially big, not Big. Yet they underestimate local tastes. There are many theatergoers who crave musical experiences beyond Oliver! and Annie. Those hardy souls can be grateful to Rocky River Community Theatre for taking up the slack.

In order to find a vehicle for its prepubescent Broadway babies, the theater pulled the John Weidman-David Shire-Richard Maltby Jr. musicalization of Big out of mothballs. The results are as sweet and refreshing as a bowl of sherbet: a winsome blend of ramshackle community-theater rawness and honest charisma. Audiences bring different expectations to community theater, so quirky mistakes that would cause jaws to drop at a professional production here bring only indulgent smiles. Embarrassed actors scramble to get behind a too-early-dropped curtain. Costuming, meant to represent a corporate office environment, comes closer to a blend of Rocky Horror Show and Sesame Street. Choreography is hit-or-miss. And performances are widely varied, ranging from breezy insouciance to cue-card recitation.

Yet it is all hard to resist. There are so many rambunctious children somersaulting in their Gap colors, they literally spill off the stage. In a musical about the triumph of innocence, this seems so appropriate and affecting that it unearths in us the same corny instincts that make us tingle at Norman Rockwell paintings or shudder with delight to see the Brady Bunch once again romping through their split-level.

Director Kevin Joseph Kelly shows vast potential in a major undertaking. He casts well and has the firm, kindly hand of a dedicated scoutmaster. He knows how to rub two performers together to generate tenderness and whimsy. Yet he needs practice at stylizing a show to camouflage the bald patches in a minuscule budget.

This is a work that rises or falls on its charm quotient. Michael Gibson, as the best buddy, burns up the stage with pep and likability. In a role that made Hanks an institution, Joe Fornadel is easygoing and ingratiating. With a voice warm enough to toast marshmallows on and a gangly gait suggestive of the Scarecrow of Oz, he is the ideal boy-man.

Even in a production that doesn't have the means to do it total justice, Big remains one of the most enjoyable musicals of its decade. It preserves and enhances everything that made the film a gentle restorative. Maltby's lyrics are filtered through young adolescent wonder and mild rebellion. Shire's jubilant music is a time capsule of that moment when the bitter end of disco was morphing into rap. The music is as playful as the snap, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies and equally evocative when expressing bubblegum love or adult angst.

After the show collapsed on Broadway, the creators simplified it for the road. Unwisely, they tampered with the original score, axing some of the best numbers while adding weary baggage with mediocre new songs. They damaged the show, but not enough to ruin its exuberance.

As in all good musicals, it deepens its source material. When the confused adult hero Josh is about to lose his virginity, he is confronted by his child self, succinctly crystallizing the conflict between innocence and sexuality in a manner darker and even more penetrating than the film. The musical vocabulary has made Big deeper and richer than ever: big where it counts.

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