Review - Big the Musical at the Dominion Theatre
Big the Musical was - in a pre-Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark and King Kong - one of the costliest Broadway flop musicals ever staged at the time of its 1996 premiere, losing the entirety of its $10.3m investment when it shut after just six months, after failing to be nominated for that year's Tony Award for best musical.
Even though it had a British director - the late, great Mike Ockrent (whose hits included Me and My Girl and Crazy for You on both sides of the Atlantic), working with the choreographic genius that is Susan Stroman (by then, also his wife) - at the helm, it never transferred to the UK; but twenty years later a new production started kicking around the regions, newly directed and choreographed by Morgan Young, receiving its British premiere at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in 2016 before a season in Dublin.
It then, as now, starred Jay McGuiness in the role of Josh Baskin, the 12-year-old prematurely propelled into adulthood, played in the original 1988 non-musical film by Tom Hanks, after he makes a fairground wish to a Zoltar Speaks machine. And perseverance has now paid off: now Big has itself has grown up into a big, splashy West End musical at the Dominion, one of London's largest musical houses. It must also be its least loveliest, regularly only working to diminish and drown a show in its vast vacuum.
So the first welcome thing to say about Big is that, as spectacularly designed by Simon Higlett, it actually fills the space. There are architectural interiors of young Josh's home and his best friend and neighbour Billy on either side of the stage, with a large video wall in-between resetting locations at will. It dissolves into interiors of the offices of the toy company Josh ends up working at (as "VP for Production Evaluation"), and the adult apartment he acquires, and where his first experiences with the opposite sex unfold.
Some of this overt sexualisation may, in the context of the fact that he's still actually a 12-year-old albeit in a older man's body, may seem somewhat icky, especially now, where predatory sexual behaviour by offenders of either gender are unquestionably problematic. But here it is the older woman who finds herself exclaiming, "I could go to jail!" when she realises who she has actually slept with.
But the joy of this story - and John Weidman's astute and frequently witty theatrical adaptation of Gary Ross and Anne Speilberg's original screenplay - is the skewed prism of wide-eyed innocence it is seen through, as a child finds himself suddenly promoted not just to premature adulthood but in that wondrous state of adulthood where he can still be a child, professionally speaking.
And here's the second and most important pleasure of the production: a performance of wide-eyed and curly topped wonder by Jay McGuiness that is full of joy and surprise. The boy band singer (from The Wanted) and winner of Strictly Come Dancing in 2015 is an accomplished vocalist and effortless dancer, but more than that he also has an engaging warmth as an actor.
That's a signature of the entire production, which is full of confident, appealing performances, with Wendi Peters and Matthew Kelly stealing parental honours (as Josh's mother and new boss respectively), and Kimberley Walsh as Josh's love interest Susan. There's also fantastic support from a rotating round of child performers, who play the young versions of Josh and Billy (Jamie O’Connor and Jobe Hart on press night) and their friends.
The score, with music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby, is tuneful if occasionally on the bland side; but mostly this is a surprising delight.
Big the Musical tickets are available now.