Book: John Weidman
Music: David Shire
Lyrics: Richard Maltby
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Films from the 1980s are the bedrock of musical theatre right now, something about their big-hearted themes, easy social messaging and optimistic storytelling suits the frothiest of genres perfectly. 9 to 5opened earlier this year following a popular run for Heathers: The Musical and soon a song-filled version of Back to the Future opens in Manchester. The latest adaptation to arrive in the West End is Big: The Musical based on the 1988 film starring Tom Hanks with stars Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh.
Frustrated with his parents, 12-year old Josh Baskin makes a wish at a carnival and wakes up the next day in an adult body. Terrifying his mother, Josh flees with only best friend Billy prepared to believe what happened and promises to track down the fair so Josh can change back. A chance encounter with a toymaker gives Josh the chance to enjoy his new grown-up status, developing toy ideas and meeting a girl, Vice President of Marketing Susan, but soon the demands of adulthood are not all they seem.
The piano scene is the film’s most memorable moment and the first thing audience members will be hoping to see. Here designer Simon Higlett and Director Morgan Young have the perfect solution, a set of illuminated piano keys projected onto the floor and frontispiece of the stage, so wherever you sit, this crucial scene will be clearly visible. And it is one of the showcase moments, performed with skill by McGuiness and Matthew Kelly as the toyshop owner, although the younger cast quite rightly get to finish the number.
Yet, David Shire and Richard Maltby have created a slightly overstuffed teddy bear of a show, which tries to give you a warm hug but is a just that little bit too cumbersome. There are several competing drivers – the thawing of the MacMillan office, the race to develop a sellable Christmas toy, the developing love story and Josh’s need to return to his former state – and while Shire and Maltby set all the tops spinning, they don’t all sustain the momentum the show needs to fill is 2 hour and 30-minute runtime.
There’s fun to be had but it’s a little too diluted among the more serious themes including nicely performed but nonetheless filler songs for Josh’s mother (Wendi Peters) and the rather sweet if earnest romance which dominates Act Two. When Big: The Musicallets loose it works well; Josh’s comic discovery of his new body is very well handled by McGuiness, while the big choreographed numbers also by Young including ‘Cross the Line,’ the full company Act One finale and hip hop and street-dance inspired ‘Can’t Wait’ for Young Josh and his friends are great. But the zany joy of the original film starts to leak away.
The one thing holding the show together is Kimberley Walsh’s superb performance as Susan, and while the show’s feminist principles remain firmly in the 80s – Susan is a high-powered executive, but her storyline wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test – Walsh makes you really care for her. She has wonderful comic timing, amusingly exasperated by her derailed seduction on her first date with Josh, but she also exudes enough star quality to lift the show, taking a fairly thin character and filling her with a credible pathos as Susan discovers new qualities.
McGuiness reprises the role he played on tour and well captures the overly serious attitude of childhood mixed with bursts of energy as Josh navigates his new physical and emotional shape. Like Walsh, McGuiness gets to showcase all those Strictly Come Dancingskills with several dance numbers but it is the blossoming of Josh in his new adult life that McGuiness charts so well, matched by a cheeky performance from Matthew Kelly as the toymaker finding his own inner child and Jobe Hart as best friend Billy who develops a convincing connection with Josh.
Of all the Tom Hanks films, Big lends itself most easily to the musical treatment – although if anyone can work up a version of Joe Versus the Volcano then we all need to see that. There are some good ideas in here and clearly an affection for the film that will win over audiences but in overinflating the story, it loses some of its bounce. Perhaps it’s not quite big enough.
Runs Until: 2 November 2019 | Image: Alastair Muir