Jay McGuiness & Kimberley Walsh in Big The Musical – Photo Credit: Alastair Muir
Venue: The Dominion Theatre, London
Performance Date: 18 September 2019
Reviewer: Gemma Fincher
Star Rating: ★★
It has taken over 20 years for Morgan Young, Director and Choreographer of Big The Musical to realise his dream of bringing the show to London’s West End. Back in 1996, Big premiered on Broadway dividing the critics and yielding mixed reviews. Unfortunately for Young, it’s likely that history will repeat itself as the blockbuster musical takes up residence in the cavernous Dominion Theatre for a limited run. It’s always a risk to mess with the formula of a beloved movie and even more challenging to recreate and replicate the requisite magic from screen to stage. Unfortunately for Big The Musical, fans of the movie will likely feel incredibly short-changed with Young’s risk failing to pay off for a second time.
Big The Musical is based on the 1988 film of the same name which starred a fresh-faced Tom Hanks. The movie was a box office smash and to this day retains an innocent charm making it one of the most beloved movies of a generation. The musical, like the film, follows the story of twelve-year-old Josh Baskin, who is told he is too short for a carnival ride in front of his crush Cynthia Benson. Mortally embarrassed and frustrated Josh approaches an unusual arcade machine called Zoltar and makes an ill-fated wish to be ‘big’. The next morning Josh wakes up as a fully-fledged adult and with the help of his plucky friend Billy is forced to navigate the trials of adulthood.
It’s clear to see that there has been significant investment in the production from the marketing to the set design to the incredibly strong casting and the huge company behind the show. It’s curious then that at no point during the piece do the individual component parts seem to gel.
The cast is incredibly large with a number of child actors in the ensemble. The role of young Josh and his best friend Billy are being shared by several actors throughout the run. For press night it was the talented Jobe Hart, in the role of Josh’s best friend Billy who plays the role with cheeky humour and incredible confidence. Hart no doubt has a successful career ahead of him.
Former member of boy band The Wanted and 2015 Strictly champion Jay McGuiness brings a warmth to the adult Josh, the boy in a man’s body and the energetic choreography does at times allow him to showcase what endeared him to the British public in terms of his dancing ability. Girls Aloud alum Kimberley Walsh is assured as the ambitious executive Susan who becomes enchanted by Josh’s naive charm, little knowing she is actually being wooed by a twelve-year-old. The chemistry between the two at times feels awkward and herein lies the problem. There was always a level of innocence to Josh and Susan’s relationship which the movie never took further than a kiss. The musical moves this plot-line on and quite frankly the suggestion that their relationship becomes physical during the awkward number ‘I Want To Know’ is both wildly inappropriate and deeply uncomfortable. To then back up that inference with a second number ‘Coffee Black’ only heightens that discomfort.
Wendi Peters brings some class to proceedings as Josh’s frantic mother but is woefully underused. Her big number ‘Stop Time’ is the stand out of the show by a county mile. Matthew Kelly puts in a relatively solid turn as the ageing toy shop proprietor George MacMilan, who hires Josh as a toy evaluator. Kelly does his best with the material he is given but at times does descend down the pantomime rabbit hole. Thankfully, the nostalgia is there in the form of the infamous giant piano scene for which the huge Dominion stage is perfect.
It would be incredibly unfair to the say that the cast doesn’t work hard – they do but they are let down by the material they have to work with. The choreography at times is pedestrian and clunky with Maltby and Shire’s music and lyrics instantly forgettable. The score suffers from a lack of definition as it’s never quite possible to know when a number has truly ended with several being reprised later in the scene. Much of Big is sung-through which is fine if the numbers significantly add to the narrative, which they don’t. The young cast brings energy in abundance but transitionally the show is wide of the mark. The staging is big and bold but the huge video screens add little to the effect and in fact, are rather distracting with the stage rotating at regular intervals and dizzying pace.
To add insult to injury the principal cast is a complete white-wash with not one BAME performer to be seen. The narrative of Big is not driven by race and there is absolutely no excuse not to employ diverse casting to the show. In a time where diversity in the industry is so widely championed and promoted it’s infuriating to see a West End show fly in the face of that.
It’s always difficult to nail the magic musical formula, especially when it comes to recreating something as iconic as Big. The show has the main ingredients of a smash hit musical on paper. A talented cast; strong core material in the form of a much-loved movie and an experienced creative team. Ultimately the piece falls short which is both incredibly disappointing and frustrating for the talented cast who are clearly working hard to bring the show to life.