If you want to see a musical that doesn't really work, and probably shouldn't have been written to begin with, Big, the current offering at Stages St. Louis, is just the ticket. When produced on Broadway in 1996, despite animated choreography by the ubiquitous Susan Stroman, the show ran for barely five months. Although there has been continuous tinkering with the material for various tours, Big is still an exercise in energy over craft.
But hey, new American musicals don't come down the pike with the regularity that they used to. They're not to be sloughed off. With the proper perspective, even a flawed musical can offer sporadic rewards. And for sure there's more of a sense of event about seeing Big for the first time than South Pacific for the umpteenth.
Big is based on the popular movie of the same title. When producers insist on calling a show Big, the Musical, you know that's not to distinguish it from Big, the Greek Tragedy. On the contrary, this was a show tailored for an audience that its producers thought might not know the difference between a movie and a stage play. Ironically, it was the producers who didn't appreciate the distinctions. They forgot that movies are about close-ups; musicals are about momentum.
Surely you remember the plot of that 1988 film fantasy. Twelve-year-old Josh is transmuted into Tom Hanks after a capricious wish is granted and he grows way too tall way too fast. But despite its title, Big was actually a small movie that largely succeeded thanks to Hanks' sweet, subtle reactions. The camera took time to come in close on his innocent, confused eyes. But in a busy musical, it's a tricky business to try to tell the viewer where he should be looking.
There are other problems, like unnecessary songs that slow the story to a crawl, and a story that becomes uncomfortably derivative of a far more successful musical. Does grown-up Josh really find employment at a Manhattan toy firm? Or, in his youthful confusion, does he go to work instead at World Wide Wickets, the celebrated Madison Avenue corporation featured in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying? The parallels between the two plotlines were not so obvious on-screen. But musicals, whose books are usually written with the subtlety of a cartoon strip, are more transparent.
This Stages production falls prey to some of the script's pitfalls, but it refuses to acknowledge them. As overgrown Josh, David Schmittou delivers a cunningly genial performance that grows ever more persuasive as the evening progresses. Anyone interested in observing how a winning performer can emerge victorious over troubled writing should watch Schmittou at work. In a musical whose very premise is a dubious conceit, he does not strike one false note.
Speaking of notes, one of the film's high points is the ingenious sequence in which Hanks and toy magnate Robert Loggia dance on a huge floor piano. That number is repeated here (on a more modest scale) to delightful effect. Schmittou and Tom Treadwell perform with nimble dexterity and seeming ease.
Yet, as is so often the case with stage adaptations, some of the most affecting moments occur when the plot is not being literally true to its source. Late in Act 2, when Little Josh (the appealing Patrick Probst) suddenly appears onstage to join Schmittou in singing a plaintive ballad, the viewer is witnessing pure theater. No movie can pull off an affectation like that.
But at the performance I attended, the most refreshing staging occurred during "Cross the Line," the tuneful Act 1 finale that should find a life beyond Big. As performed here, the stage was packed with more than two dozen people singing the show's most surefire song a cappella. What a bravura -- if, for Stages, uncharacteristically brave -- way to have devised the number. Alas, at intermission we learned that bravery had nothing to do with it; the computer that plays back Stages' virtual music had malfunctioned.
Too bad, because as performed (presumably) this one time only, "Cross the Line" offered the kind of fresh thinking that can elevate an innocuous musical into something brash and innovative. Here's hoping that the $20 million that Stages hopes to raise for its new Chesterfield home and endowment includes a few bucks for live musicians. Either that, or make a full-blown commitment to a cappella. That works, too.