big the musical (Town of Trenton)

Community theater is practically unreviewable, which is a shame. It’s a minefield – you know people, you want to support the community, you don’t want to be the sourpuss. You also don’t want to burn your bridges. But man… I went to see Town of Trenton Community Education’s “big the musical” last week. It made me realize there is a gulf between “not good” and “bad.” (God, the gulf.) Many community productions are simply not good – they try and miss the mark, for whatever reason. (They don’t demand to be written about.) Bad takes effort, the kind that shouldn’t be encouraged. Effort that should be redirected so it doesn’t happen again. Which is the point of criticism. And yet…

This musical was directed by Peter Loftus, name listed in large type (twice that of the show’s authors, which is often a licensing violation; maybe not in this case, but anyone whose name is that large needs to take the heat). I worked with Loftus on many shows, years ago. Some of those were top-ten experiences – productions that swung for the fences, sometimes going over. His work in recent years follows a formula: cast as many as possible to boost ticket revenue. There is no evidence of artistic concern.

I found myself wondering: Why would someone choose this show to begin with? The 1988 movie was the story of a young boy who wishes he was “big” and wakes up in the body of Tom Hanks, becomes a successful toy company developer, and romances a much older woman. It skirted creepiness only because of the genius of Hanks’ performance, which emphasized innocence and wonder. Absent that performance, big has a lot of “ick” going on. I suspect somebody saw the show on Broadway, where great production values go a long way. A good set, lighting, sound, and professional actors can make a dud seem like more than it is.

The Town of Trenton Production was not fortunate enough to have Broadway-quality tech. It wasn’t awful (except the sound – everyone but the two leads were all but inaudible), but it was low rent and didn’t mask the fact that the book and songs were pretty bad. A major subplot (the development of the toy company’s big Christmas Toy) was dropped without any comment, as if the authors didn’t care and knew we wouldn’t, either. None of the songs encouraged recollection.

The ToT production’s one moment of real grace was the famous “toy piano” sequence, where the manchild and the toy company mogul danced on the keys of a “big” piano. Loftus recreated the scene faithfully and his stars rendered it dutifully, although the white and black were not evident from the audience – we saw lights on the butts of keys, because we were viewing the keyboard head-on. Those lights were a nice touch, but photos from backstage reveal an actual keyboard (credited to Mark Young and Brian McNamara) which was mostly unseen by the audience. We had a toddler’s eye view, when a raked presentation was practically mandatory.

Anthony Razzano played “grown-up Josh,” and it’s a thankless part. Who could hope to carry a show in a role that Tom Hanks played indelibly? As mentioned, the romance is gross unless leavened by the most delicate touch (it shouldn’t have been attempted.) Razzano sang the part clearly and had plenty of energy, but he was not for a single moment convincing as a 13 year-old boy awakened in the body of a grown man. He played the part as an early-20’s take on adolescence, which is understandable. But it’s not enough. Razzano needed more direction than he got (as well as a publicist to help him remember the show he’d been “most recently seen in.”)

Most of the leads sang capably but not memorably. This would ordinarily be excusable at the community level, except many in the cast were not from the Town of Trenton. Why is this a big deal? The audience didn’t seem to be from the Town of Trenton either. I used to work on these shows, and I remember sellout crowds. On the Friday night I attended, less than half the auditorium was full. (Did the absent audience know something I didn’t?) Why is the Town of Trenton producing community shows that draw sparse community participation, and fail to attract a community audience?

A negative review is always unfair to some. The smallest members of the cast were undoubtably thrilled to be in this production. Some of the supporting cast did good work, which inevitably gets lost in the shuffle (Brian Angell and Nick Williams were better than the show, but couldn’t save it.) Others are unreviewable based on the community theater pact: who can reject the doctor and his family who just want an activity to do together? I fall back on the best criticism I ever received, from a HS English teacher who said, “I think the performers enjoyed themselves more than I did. Which wasn’t great for me.”

Ultimately, this failure is on Peter Loftus. The producers and participants trusted him to deliver a worthy show. This one wasn’t; to be honest, Loftus hasn’t done a worthy show in over a decade.