The 1988 Tom Hanks movie wasn't just a Big success, it was absolutely HUGE, grossing more than $150 million worldwide. By contrast, this musical version lasted barely six months on Broadway and has taken over 20 years to reach the West End. While it is unlikely to be on any musical theatre fan's all-time top 10 list, it is an agreeable slice of escapist entertainment with a decent Maltby and Shire score and, in Morgan Young's engaging London staging, a brace of winning central performances.
The Broadway edition of Big The Musical probably suffered from opening in the same season as the ground-breaking juggernaut Rent. While that was an iconoclastic, hard-hitting rock opera that felt current and urgent back in 1996, here was an old-fashioned romantic musical comedy, albeit with a bittersweet edge. The tall tale of a 12-year-old who is granted his wish to become an adult overnight stood little chance against Jonathan Larson's tortured artists tearing up "La Vie Bohème".
Although ostensibly set in the 1980s (and composer David Shire's attempts to ape the pop music of that period are less successful than the Big Band Broadway fare elsewhere in the score), the show feels like a throwback to an even earlier era. The gargantuan double houses in the opening setting (attractive design by Simon Higlett) look like something from I Love Lucy, while the second act showstopper "Coffee Black", with its smartly dressed corporate workers turning into a tightly drilled dance ensemble, recalls 1960s Broadway hits How To Succeed In Business… and Promises Promises. The score contains a number of delights, including a lovely ballad for hero Josh's grieving mother entitled "Stop Time" (touchingly delivered by Wendi Peters) and a witty, quasi-operatic quartet for the heroine's best friends as they size up her latest beau, unaware he is a man in appearance only. The tart, smart lyrics are by Richard Maltby Jr.
John Weidman's efficient book could have spent more time on establishing how rotten young Josh's life is, to give us a better understanding of why he is so desperate to grow up, or on showing how go-getting heroine Susan is a real hard-nosed careerist until softened by her feelings for Josh. This sketchiness does pay off perhaps in the long term though as it never allows us to consider the sheer inappropriateness of a fully grown woman bedding a barely pubescent, despite the fact that he is in a much older body.
The far-fetched nature of the story may also turn off some adults while the more romantic elements could bore youngsters. What audiences will undoubtedly love though are the iconic 'dancing on a giant keyboard' sequence, lifted wholesale from the film, the kookie chemistry between Jay McGuiness's callow Josh and Kimberley Walsh's more worldly Susan, and some striking visuals. If the sets look as though they were built for a much smaller stage than the cavernous Dominion one, Morgan Young fills the space with fun, high-energy choreography and some pretty terrific video designs from Ian William Galloway.
McGuiness and Walsh are really charming together, and Matthew Kelly, despite a barely-there American accent, is great value as the irascible toy shop tycoon who sees the potential in Josh. The aforementioned Peters is a lovely stage presence while Lori Hayley Fox is a klaxon-voiced hoot as a vinegary secretary in the office scenes. The kids in the company are clearly having a ball although it is a shame that the booming sound system renders them barely intelligible.
If there are precious few moments where it feels essential that the characters express themselves through song, thereby justifying the adaptation of the story into a musical, the company numbers really pop and the ballads are undeniably enjoyable. Then there is a simple but breathtaking illusion, courtesy of Chris Fisher, at the very end that puts a satisfying button on the show, prior to the obligatory mass sing-along.
Big contains much to like although it would probably be easier to discover its considerable charms in a more intimate venue than the massive Dominion. Still, as the nights draw in and the world at large gets chillier, there are a lot worse ways of spending a couple of hours.