John Tartaglia in Big: The Musical (photo credit: Jenny Anderson)
The York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti series--in which old musicals are presented as script-in-hand staged readings with cut-down casts, no scenery or costumes, and little more than a piano as orchestra--has proven popular with audiences, offering titles that are not likely to be seen again on Broadway or even at City Center Encores! The Mufti program is now in its 20th season and has a steady enough following to fill the 175-seater in a church basement within the Citicorp complex on Lexington Avenue -- so much so that they have now expanded to a two-week, 10-performance run.
One wishes the York full success with their new Mufti policy, but we can't say that this season's opener triumphs. The show in question is Big, also known as Big: The Musical lest we not walk into the theater expecting to see Tom Hanks. Big, which premiered at the Shubert in the spring of 1996, was the Spider-Man of its day. Not that it was as poor as Broadway's most recent fiasco, but prospective theatergoers were treated to a barrage of negative reports during its tryout period as the creators struggled to make the thing work. Like Spider-Man, the version that finally opened was better than it had been, though not very good, and, like the musical which henceforth will go unmentioned, Big seems to have cost and lost more money than any Broadway show had at the time, with the price tag amazingly pushing past the $10-million mark. There was no bloodshed, though.
That being the case, one does not walk into Mufti expecting a lost My Fair Lady. One hopes, though, that the values of the show--which rested mostly in the score by David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr., of Baby--would shine through now that they weren't smothered by all that scenery. (Big, at the Shubert, featured a stage-floor electronic keyboard so the actors could make music while doing Susan Stroman dances in the F.A.O. Schwarz scene.) What's more, Big--due to the title's built-in audience appeal--was comprehensively revamped and sent out on the road, with eight new songs. Here at the York, New Yorkers finally have the chance to hear them. For those of us who especially enjoy the work of Mr. Shire, this sounds like reason for a visit.
This Big, alas, seems just as unengaging as the Broadway version; given the lack of orchestral accompaniment, it is even less entertaining. The quality songs ("Stars," "Stop, Time" "Dancing Through Life"), which were pretty much smothered by the production in 1996, retain their worth. The show itself, though, remains defeated by the creep factor inherent in the material. Josh, a small-fry 12-year-old out in New Jersey, stumbles upon a carnival fortune-telling machine and wishes he could be "big." Next morning he is, which sends him off to New York, where he lands an executive job at MacMillan Toys. (MacMillan is impressed because this 30-ish fellow has a canny understanding of what toys kids like to play with.)
The trouble comes when he is seduced and bedded by the 32-year-old heroine. If we believe that the adult-sized Josh is really a 12-year-old--and we must, for the story to work--how are we supposed to react to the affair? (Just last month, a 35-year-old school teacher in New Jersey was arrested for sexually assaulting five of her high-school students in Maplewood.)
John Tartaglia and Kerry Butler in Big: The Musical (photo credit: Jenny Anderson)
This wasn't a problem when you were watching Tom Hanks in the original 1988 film version. On stage, though, you can't get away from it--especially when they have a scene in which the 12-year-old watches and sings as his adult self is seduced. Who are we rooting for here? The grownup boy finding love; the likable heroine who, after all, can't possibly realize that this goofy fellow is actually a pre-teen; or the young boy actor standing there uncomfortably watching?
No, Big hasn't been patched and fixed. The surprise, here at Mufti, is how ineffective the road tour changes were. There are a whole bunch of new songs, yes, but they are puzzlingly non-helpful -- like "My Secretary's in Love," in which the leading lady complains at length that her secretary (who is not a character in the show) is getting married. The changes by librettist John Weidman and the songwriters don't seem to begin to address the problems.
Where this Mufti is effective is in the performance of John Tartaglia (Avenue Q) as the grown-up version of Josh. Tartaglia combines the adult body with the teenage awkwardness in a way that the originator of the role (Daniel Jenkins) did not. What's more, Tartaglia brings some much welcome physical humor to the role. Kerry Butler (Hairspray) is her usual, talented self as the problematically written heroine. We get a last-minute replacement in the third main role, as the veteran Walter Charles--who was announced and is included in the production photos--became unavailable. No loss here, as audiences are treated to a charmingly unfussy performance by lyricist Maltby himself. Considering that everyone is reading from scripts and he already knows the songs, this works out fine. Eleven-year-old Hayden Wall is a cheerful presence as the underage hero, with Janet Metz doing a good job as the mother who gets to deliver "Stop, Time."
I remember noting in 1996 that young Josh had two parents in the opening section, but that once he disappeared, so did his father; the mother had numerous scenes suffering over the loss of her son, but the father was never seen again (except that the actor could be recognized in the chorus). Watching the show in stripped-down Big at the York, that still seems strange.
Big: The Musical, a concert version of the musical with book by John Weidman, music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., opened Oct. 12, 2014, at the York Theatre.