MAGNA — “Being big and tall doesn’t make you a grown-up.” This lyric, from the title song of Big: The Musical, encapsulates the message of this stage adaptation of the beloved 1988 film, Big. The show (with script by John Weidman) tells the story of 12-year-old Josh Baskin, who is granted a wish by a carnival machine called “Zoltar Speaks.” Josh’s wish? To be big. The next morning he wakes up as a fully grown adult. With a seventh grade education, Josh manages to get a job, fall in love, and learn some important life lessons.
The star of this production, Jake Andersen, is endearing and innocent as a young adolescent suddenly thrust into the adult world. When Anderson first appears on stage, his character is reacting to all the abrupt changes with becoming an adult. Andersen was hilarious in this first scene (think of dealing with all the changes of puberty in a few minutes), and he kept the character endearing throughout the rest of the play. But Andersen wasn’t just adept at dealing with comedy; his tender moments were poignant, such as when he decides that he doesn’t want to be a kid again. I also liked Andersen’s performance with Betsy Christiansen, who played Jake’s adult love interest, Susan Lawrence. Christiansen was charming as the powerful career woman who gradually lets a different kind of man into her heart. With “My Secretary’s in Love,” Christiansen established her character and indirectly showed her emotional need for love. As Susan and Josh grew closer together, Christiansen and Andersen created a relationship between their characters that I found it easy to care about. “Little Susan Lawrence” was an especially touching that highlighted the two characters’ emotions.
Other cast members also gave noteworthy performances. Kimberly Johnson excellently portrayed Josh’s mom and in the beginning of the show was convincing as a worn-down, unappreciated mother. When Josh goes missing after his change (which she doesn’t know about), her character’s profound distress was easy to believe. After I got home I read in Johnson’s bio that she is a mother, and it is clear that she drew upon real emotions to produce her performance. I also appreciated Josh Astle‘s performance as Paul Seymour, an enemy that Josh makes at his first day of work. Astle made the most of his role as he elegantly danced (“Cross the Line”) and justifiably raged about Josh. Finally, Melinda Owen was a gem in the minor role of Miss Watson, and Owen always sparkled in the group scenes that she was part of.
This production is not just notable for the excellent performances, but also for how good this show looks. Once again, the Empress Theatre has impressed me with the quality of the costumes (designed by Amy Burton and Margie Craig). Many of the costumes (especially for the children) perfectly captured the late 1980’s/early 1990’s period of the story, which lent a little bit of nostalgia to the production. Also, the set (constructed by Jay Walk, Lorrinda Christensen, and Bennie Nugter) was minimalistic, but still useful and attractive—especially the cityscape background.
Unfortunately, Big did not sound as great as it looked. Sound problems were apparent in almost every scene. Normally I’m pretty forgiving of sound issues in amateur shows because microphones are the easiest thing to have glitches. But the poor sound system was too difficult for me to ignore, and it greatly distracted from my enjoyment of the show. Also, the vocal music (from music director Lorrinda Christensen) was the weakest aspect of the show. The enunciation and the projection from the ensemble and the children were very poor, and I strained to understand many of the lyrics (written by Richard Maltby). David Shire’s music sounded best in the solo numbers (like “Big,” “Stars,” and “Little Susan Lawrence”). But notes were so frequently off pitch that I struggled to enjoy songs like “Welcome to MacMillan Toys,” “The Real Thing,” or “The Nightmare.”
Helming this production was director Rebecca Walk, who deserves much of the credit for the positive aspects of this production. Walk effectively established the mood of the production in the early scenes, and she created a wonderful transformation scene that helped me become invested in the central conflict of the story. Walk excellently ensured that the blocking on the Empress’s thrust stage (which has most of the audience seated at the sides of the stage) did not neglect any part of the audience. Finally, Walk made Big downright funny, and I didn’t notice any jokes in the script that fell flat. The funniest part of the show was probably when Josh brings Susan to his apartment; Walk ensured that the humor was relentless, but not overbearing.
For most of UTBA’s readers, the drive to Magna is not convenient. Although the production isn’t perfect, I think that it’s worth the trip to the western edge of Salt Lake County. The Empress Theatre is one of the better amateur theatre companies in northern Utah, and this production is the best of the three that I’ve seen there.