Big: a Bit By-the-numbers

Paramount Theatre,
February 13

Anything and everything is grist for the musical mill. In a reversal of literary fortunes, a hit movie has become a hit national tour. Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire, the team that brought the agonies and ecstasies of pregnancy to Broadway with the unexpectedly successful Baby (nominated, in those lean years of the early 1980s, for an impressive seven Tony awards -- thankfully winning none) convinced Paramount Pictures that big, the story of a 12-year-old's wish come true, could make it on the Great White Way and play in Peoria. And in a cute, innocuous way, much of big proves itself pleasant, if predictable, mainstream American musical fare. Certainly the audience of family groups and Broadway series subscribers seemed roundly pleased by the show at the Paramount on Saturday night.

Josh Baskin, an awkward boy at a most awkward age, is goaded by his best friend Billy into confronting the older Cynthia Benson, on whom Josh has an oppressive crush. At the New Jersey carnival he's loath to attend, Josh finally stammers an invitation to Cynthia to ride the roller coaster, only to be thwarted by an older boy ("That's Derek; he can drive") and the fact that he isn't tall enough to be allowed onto the ride. Josh encounters an eerie electronic fortune teller and makes his wish: "I wish I was big." Next morning, he awakes as a 12-year-old boy in the body of a 30-year-old man. What follows is something of a corporate fairy tale of rekindling one's youthful creativity and enthusiasm, of discovering love in its innocent and adult forms, and of the bonds of family and friendship.

Among the stand-out performances were Russell Aaron Fischer's, as best friend Billy, squeaky-voiced but highly enthusiastic. As young Josh, Blake Sidney Galler has a fine falsetto but hasn't the vocal strength to master the majority of the material. Patrick Herwood, playing toy-store owner George MacMillan, was spot-on as the fear-instilling corporate executive who just wants to let it all hang out. His pied à deux with big Josh on the giant toy piano is an excellent Act One showstopper (and the inspiration for the musical's creation). As adult female interest and fast-climbing marketer Susan Lawrence, Jeni Cook proves that she can sing and dance, but was made to look wretched in a too-short, too-tight wardrobe that was clearly designed for a less-meaty woman.

Greg Mills steals the show -- it's his to steal -- as the older Josh, exuberantly characterizing the man-bodied boy. (This was Tom Hanks' role in the movie.) Who hasn't dreamed of blowing one's nose (of silly string) at corporate America, of speaking one's mind while the politically correct try to maintain their phony, well-heeled dignity? Mills revels in his escapades, charming without losing control. Lanky and playful, he sings well, dances well, and seems to be the glue that holds the ensemble together. Mills and Cook make an effective pair as each maneuvers around the other -- Susan trying to get ahead, Josh trying to get by as a pseudo-adult. Theirs is a believable journey from ignorance to friendship to love. Also worth noting is Mary Callanan as Josh's mom. Almost separate from the rest of the production are her act-opening numbers, "Say Good Morning to Mom" and "Stop, Time," which she delivers with humor and grace -- elements that pepper the show, but not nearly enough to exceed expectations.

Karma Camp's choreography and Frank Lombardi's direction keep those expectations firmly met: Crowd numbers, quiet duets, the ubiquitous company tap number, corporate automaton marches and swing dancing. There's definitely a musical-by-the-numbers feel to the production, especially with James Kronzer's reduced set design of painted drops and an over-reliance on an ugly light blue scrim that rose and fell with metronomic predictability. The play's rapid end confirms the difficulties of complete storytelling when the evening is running late and it's time to get the youngsters home to bed. -- Robi Polgar


Scottish Rite Theatre,
February 13

Not until I was walking out of the theatre did I realize that Dancing Into the Deep, the latest program from Andrea Beckham Collaborative Dance, was about losing one's self in deep thoughts. A light bulb appeared over my head and a little bell rang as I figured it out and it made me smile in recognition. Usually I arrive early and pore over my program as if it were a treasure map, but I had been too busy chatting with old friends to give it more than a cursory glance before the performance began. Shame on me, because I almost missed out.

Included with the program was the text of a profoundly moving poem by Anabella Acevedo-Leal titled Detras la sombra de la palabra (Behind the shadow of a word), which inspired a duet of the same name by Susan Douglas Roberts. For penance, I spent the entire intermission absorbing the imagery before rushing up to the balcony of the Scottish Rite Theatre (the best place to see floor work in this recently fitted dance venue) to see the piece performed. The two dancers, representing the self and the elusive image of the self, journeyed between parallel planes of existence to move in a synchronous fashion or in counterpoint, occasionally performing bewildering acts such as handing items to audience members or conversing with the poet. The switch from third-person taped narration of the poem to the first-person recitation of lines traded between the dancers and a speaker in the audience was jarring, making me wish I knew Spanish better so I might have understood the reason for the shift. The brilliant set design for the piece, large gilt standing frames resembling full-length mirrors (minus the glass in some), provided not only a visual representation of a heady concept but excellent opportunities for manipulating negative space. Although the dancers were well-matched and the piece boasted many beautiful moments, I wished for more usage of the possibilities within the frames to further develop the relationship between the two women.

Snow Globe, a solo choreographed and performed by Sharir + Bustamante company member Carolyn Pavlik, also tackled a difficult concept: the idea of escape. Physical escape is a matter of not being in the previous space anymore, and it goes by so quickly that it is essential to suspend time both before and after to emphasize the fleeting event. The imagery in the beginning sequence was stunning. Pavlik appeared, waving to the crowd in a voluminous ball gown as snow sprinkled on her and a tinny music box tinkled out a song. Suddenly she fell out of the dress and it remained suspended as she stumbled and lurched beautifully around the stage space struggling with her connection to the confines of the dress. Pavlik's sliding movements with her arms along the fourth wall of the proscenium indicated the invisible glass which trapped her until she eventually worked up the courage to escape. I wanted to see more of the escapee's reaction afterward, but the apron was very dimly lighted and then the piece ended quickly.

An additional highlight of the show was the engaging trio of Beckham, Pavlik, and Roxanne Saenz-Gage as the devout woman, the old woman, and the ingenue, respectively, who paired hilarious stream-of-consciousness inner monologues with rippling motions of kneeling, standing, sitting, and praying. The piece was filled with amusing references to the Catholic Mass and the fellowship experience, most of which rang true for my Catholic friend with me.

What a great package this company/collective offers! Andrea Beckham Collaborative Dance features choreography by several artists of varying techniques and gives the audience the opportunity to see some of the finest dancers in town in a well-produced concert. I applaud the venture and encourage the collaborators to continue finding their own choreographic voices and movement vocabularies. -- Dawn Davis

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Big, Richard Maltby, Jr., David Shire, Paramount Theatre, Greg Mills, Jeni Cook, Robi Polgar

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