Filichia Features: BIG Scores Big at the York

Filichia Features: BIG Scores Big at the York

Big at the York Theatre starring Kerry Butler and John Tartaglia

The laughs were long, hard and genuine guffaws after most jokes. The applause was strong and hard after all songs. The opening night crowd couldn’t contain its enthusiasm -- and had no desire to.

And the show was Big.

Eighteen years ago, Big had the misfortune to open just as RENT was taking Broadway by storm, hurricane and tsunami. Critics, many of whom wanted to show how young and hip they were, gave Rent the raves and Big faint praise. Only days later, Big found itself enmeshed in notoriety when it failed to get a Tony nomination as Best Musical. The New York Daily News didn’t agree with the decision, and emblazoned its front page– not front page of the arts section, mind you, but the front page of the entire newspaper – with the headline “TONY BALONEY.”

But now the musical version of the famous movie is being redeemed by the York Theatre Company, director Michael Unger, musical director Eric Svejcar and a most talented cast.

John Tartaglia (of Avenue Q fame) is pin-point perfect as the man-child that Josh Baskin becomes after he’s made a wish to Zoltar, a carnival machine that isn’t expected to really grant wishes but in this one case does. The suddenly big Josh doesn’t know where to go, so he heads to FAO Schwarz to play with toys. There he runs into Macmillan, the CEO of Macmillan Toys, who’s immediately so impressed with Josh’s extensive knowledge of action figures and games that he hires him on the spot.

Macmillan, by the way, is now being played at the York by no less than Richard Maltby, Jr. – Big’s lyricist. This casting wasn’t planned; Walter Charles was scheduled to do it, but became indisposed, so Maltby stepped in. Wow, wow, wow, fellas; look at the ol’ guy now, fellas! He’s doing a terrific job.

Once at Macmillan, Big Josh also impresses Susan (excellently portrayed by Hairspray’s “Checkerboard Chick” Kerry Butler). Eventually, she falls in love with him, unaware, of course, that he’s a child. But we’re reminded of his youth in the scene and song where they’re about to make love for the first time -- for out comes Young Josh (the extraordinary Hayden Wall) to sing what a 13-year-old boy would feel in this situation.

So as in the film, Big Josh has a doting girlfriend, a great job, a company apartment and plenty of money. That spurred bookwriter John Weidman to wonder why the screenwriters had Josh constantly aching to become young again. Weidman apparently asked himself, “Why would a kid who’s been given all this ever want to return to the oppression of parents, teachers, chores and homework?”

Thus Weidman wisely considered what Josh would do after work. Susan, of course, would want him to meet her friends – and when Josh does, he’s finally out of his league and knows it. He can’t abide caviar, isn’t able to open a champagne bottle, is hopeless at driving a car and fails to keep up in witty and urbane conversation. That’s enough to make a kid high-tail it home to the suburbs, school and even parents.

Now if you only know the show from its original cast album – or from its original production – you don’t know the Big that Weidman, Maltby and composer David Shire revamped since its non-Tony-winning run. The revised script with a bevy of new songs is in evidence at the York as well as in the materials that MTI offers.

Taking a cue from Weidman’s acknowledgement that grown-ups have it better than kids (well, relatively speaking), Maltby and Shire wrote “Big Boys.” Here Josh’s best friend Billy (the hilarious Jeremy Todd Shinder) points out the assets of being adult: “No one yelling, ‘Young man, you are grounded!” he accurately observes.

Susan has been fleshed out with no fewer than three new songs (of which Butler made the most): “My Secretary’s in Love” (“In two weeks, her nails are all she’s ever filed”), “Let’s Not Move Too Fast” (in which the lady doth protest too much about not spending the night with Josh) and “Little Susan Lawrence,” spurred by Josh’s giving her a toy ring – just as Buzz Babcock did in middle school.

But all good flights of fancy must come to an end, so Josh and Susan experience a bittersweet parting in “We’re Gonna Be Fine.” This actually harkens back to a scene only seen in the early performances of BIG’s 1996 Detroit tryout: Weidman had an epilogue that took place six months later, when Josh was again playing in FAO Schwarz and Susan and her new beau walked in -- to let us know she’d moved on and had found true love. Incidentally, Susan’s previous boyfriend and nefarious co-worker Paul burst in, too, alas, as an out-of-work wino who was so soused that he made the title character of The Drunkard look like Reverend Doctor Brock in Tenderloin. Considering how consistently mean he’d been to Josh, the punishment fit the crime.

To be frank, Big was fine on Broadway and fine now. But if you only know the original, get thee to the York this weekend. Catch a plane, catch a breeze; on your hands, on your knees, swim or fly, only please come back to it. If all else fails, go to a carnival, find Zoltar, and firmly state “I wish I could be in New York City this weekend to see Big.”

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at