Be Careful What You Wish For

This afternoon, we went to Hollywood to see “big: The Musical” at the West Coast Ensemble. For those unfamiliar with this musical, which is based on the Tom Hanks movie, it tells the story of 12-year old Josh Baskin. Josh is at that awkward age — too small for girls to notice him, awkwardly growing into teen-hood. One day at a carnival, Josh wishes to “be big” at the carnival Zoltar machine. The next morning… he wakes up “big”. A grown up. Of course, his mom thinks he’s a stranger and out of the house he goes. His best friend Billy packs him off to New York to find a job, while he goes to find another Zoltar machine. Josh lands at FAO Schwartz, where he meets a toy company executive who can’t figure out why his toys aren’t selling. Josh, being a kid inside, tells him… and gets hired. Now Josh is in the corporate world… and is a success by being a kid at heart. But he also has to start dealing with things he’s never dealt with before: such as the female co-worker who falls for him. Does he stay “big” for her, or does he go back to being a kid?

But that’s just the story. “big” is really a play about how kids grow up too fast, and what it is really like to be a kid inside. We all lose that kid far to quickly these days. I just heard a wonderful piece on Quirks and Quarks about the importance of play… and that’s something that is harder and harder to do in today’s world: just be playful. We see the view of the parents, whose children grow up far to fast. We see the view of the adults, all business. We also see the dilemma through two important sets of eyes: Josh’s, who must face the difficulties of adult love for the first time, and Susan, the colleague who falls for him, who learns that sometimes playfullness is the secret to love. I should note that the book for “big” is by John Weidman, based on the screenplay by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg. Music was by David Shire, with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr..

West Coast Ensemble is a theatre group that does great things with off-beat musicals like this. We’ve seen them work their magic on “Zanna Don’t” and “Assassins” before, and this production was no exception. Working in an extremely limited space, they created the flexibility to pull this off. As an example, one of the best known numbers in the show is the one where Josh and the president of the Toy Company dance on a gigantic floor keyboard. This theater could not afford a gigantic fancy lit keyboard–so they just painted one on the floor, and as the actors danced on the keys, the ensemble behind them sang individual notes. Their musical director (Daniel Thomas) also created a great sound with what appeared to be a single keyboard. A simple multi-level stage became everything from a schoolyard to bunk-beds in an apartment, to a working office, to a toy store… with just a few props. Credit goes to Stephen Gifford for his remarkable stage design and Lisa D. Katz for her imaginative lighting design in the limited space.

Of course, no production would be complete with out the actors, and this production had an excellent set of them. Leading the cast as the adult Josh Baskin was Will Collyeræ, who captured the kid inside of him, as well as being a great singer and dancer. His adult love interest, Susan Lawrence, was played by Darrin Revitzæ, and equally great singer and dancer. Both were just having fun with the roles, which is a joy to see. Others in the cast who particularly impressed me were: Johanna Kent (Mrs. Kopecki/Panhandler/Salesperson/Miss Watson/Diane), who we saw first in Assassins as Sara Jane Moore, and must be one of the most expressive actresses around; Alex Scolari (Cynthia Benson/Goth Girl/Kid/Intern), who we saw in 13 and was just mesmerizing, and LJ Benet as the young Josh Baskin, who in his second act solo number demonstrated a remarkable voice. Also worthy of note were Lisa Picotteæ as Mrs. Baskin and Larry Lederman as Mr. MacMillan (head of the toy company). Rounding out the cast were Ashley Marie Arnold (Tiffany/Kid), Sterling Beaumonæ (Billy Kopecki), Joseph Castanon (Brandon/Kid), Coby Getzug (Derek/Gang Dude/Kid/Intern), Frank Romeoæ (Mr. Kopecki/Arcade Guy/Salesperson/Birnbaum/Nick), Jake Wesley Stewart (Mr. Baskin/Drag Queen/Salesperson/Barret/Tom), Sara J. Stuckey (Mom/Homeless Lady/Salesperson/Receptionist/Abigail), Kaylie Swanson (Debbie/Kid), and Stephen Vendette (Dad/Stoner Musician/Paul Seymour).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

I’ve already spoken about the excellent technical side of this production. Completing the backstage element were Sharon McGunigle with an excellent costume design (although I’m unsure whether cell-phones were that prevalent during that period), and Cricket S. Myers for Sound Design. The production was directed by Richard Israel assisted by Suzanne Doss. Choreography, which was remarkable given the limited space, was by Christine Lakin, assisted by Corrie English. The stage manager was Amy E. Stoddardæ, who was gracious to take nsshere backstage to discuss working in technical theatre. The producer was Ben Campbell. West Coast Ensemble is under the artistic direction of Les Hanson and Richard Israel.

I should note that if you are familiar with “big” from the cast album: some of the songs appear to be changed. In particular, I noticed a new song for Josh’s mom (“Say Good Morning to Mom”) in the opening, and I think one or two others were changed. However, a number of my favorites are still there, including “Fun”, “Stars”, “Cross the Line”, and “Coffee Black”. Some of the song changes are explained in the Wikipedia page.

“big” continues at West Coast Ensemble through June 28. Tickets are available through West Coast Ensemble, and Tix.Com; discount tickets are available through LAStageTix and Goldstar events. The show is well-worth going to, but note that parking in the neighborhood can be difficult, and the seats in the theatre are very narrow.

Upcoming Theatre: Our next production is “The Green Room at Hermosa Beach Playhouse on May 24 @ 7:00pm. The end of May (May 28, 29, 30) brings Fiddler on the Roof” at Nobel Middle School: we’re planning on going on Fr 5/29. May 31 @ 2pm brings “Setup and Punch” at The Blank Theatre Company. June 20 @ 8pm is “The Little Foxes” at The Pasadena Playhouse. Lastly, July 11 will bring “Fat Pig” at Repertory East Playhouse. Based on the reviews, we’ve decided to take a pass on “Marry Me a Little/The Last 5 Years” at East/West Players. Other shows pending scheduling and ticketing include “Spamalot” at the Ahmanson (7/7-9/6/09), the “Guys and Dolls” concert at the Hollywood Bowl (7/31-8/2/09), and Liza Minelli at the Hollywood Bowl (8/28-8/29/09). Also of potential interest are: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Neighborhood Playhouse (Venue Goldstar) (7/9-7/26/09); “Breaking the Code” at The Production Company in North Hollywood (5/15-6/20/09) (on LAStageTix, Venue Goldstar) (with “Equus” over the summer); and “The Apple Tree” at Crown City Theatre in North Hollywood (6/5-6/28/09) (LAStageTix). I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix.