The Empress’s BIG: THE MUSICAL has a big heart and shows great community spirit

It’s sometimes difficult to offer a review or critique of a community theater production when a community comes together and gives their all and many people sacrifice much to make the theater happen.  Additionally when a cast involves so many newcomers to the theater as well as lots of children who have never been in a show before, how do you critique it or to what standard should it be held?  It really is great to give community members a chance to experience theater and be on stage. And the Empress provides a great starting point for many new actors.  Understanding all these facets I will share my experience at BIG in a slightly less traditional format than my other reviews.

From the moment I walked into the theater lobby I was greeted by the Zoltar in the lobby, who was taking quarters to allow audience members to make wishes on their way into the theater.  Next I proceeded to my seat where along the way shelves of ‘80’s toys decorated the corridor.  The entire theater was painted on all sides with bright colors, Pac-man characters, and other symbols and décor taking me back to the 1980’s (which was in fact the decade I was born).  Then came the music in the expected synthesized ‘80’s sound, complete with disco balls, colored lights (reminding me of the skating rink when I was going to an elementary school birthday party), and an array of ‘80’s memorabilia ranging from Slinky’s, spam, Rubic’s cubes, He-man toys, and those gigantic radio antennas.  What a fun era!

BIG tells the story of a young boy named Josh Baskin (Ravin Johnson), a physically small kid who wants the attention of a girl, so he makes a wish to the Zoltar at the Carnival that he could become a grown up.  When the Zoltar grants his wish, he wakes up the next morning as a 13 year old boy trapped in a man’s body.  The grown up Josh Baskins (Jake Anderson) proceeds to venture out into the world and experience grown up life.  Along the way, he experiences love for the first time with Susan Lawrence (Betsy Christianson) and saves a toy company.  But in the end decides that he doesn’t want to grow up too fast.  The story is a musical adaptation of the 1988 Tom Hanks film by the same name.

The cast involved nearly 40 actors in the small space, half of them children ranging in age from probably 6 or 7 through teenagers.  It was great to see so many young actors on stage.  The audience was packed nearly to capacity with proud parents and enthusiastic friends and relatives of the large cast, offering supportive enthusiasm throughout the show with loud laughter, clapping and cheering.  The energy was contagious and everyone seemed to have a lot of fun.

Some high points of the show included Jake Anderson as Josh Baskins.  He had the perfect physicality of a 13-year-old boy trapped in a grown up body and showed great commitment to his choices, dances, and songs.   David Peck as Mr. Mullins was very entertaining to watch and provided some great laughs.  Josh Astle as Paul Seymour had some nice moments and gave an honest delivery in his performance.  His dance break number was especially entertaining.  Jonas Christenson as Billy Kopecki, Josh’s loyal friend, has great potential as a young actor and gave a solid performance.

By and large the acting was very surface level, lots of mugging, over-acting, and vocally very weak.  The diction was poor and hard to understand in the songs, and most of the show the singing was a bit off pitch, flat, behind the tracks and failed to blend.   Many of the principals struggled vocally and lacked the technique necessary to sing through their various bridges and often strained to hit notes or had significant disconnects from their chest and head voice.   A few other low points was that the dancing was quite messy and not together, and the ensemble playing the various parts throughout the show were inconsistent and not very believable in their different roles, particularly when attempting extreme characters or characters with accents, they came across as cartoons or caricatures rather than real people.  It was also confusing as many of the male teenagers were playing adult parts up against older women, most notably when they were playing the stuffy Harvard executives of the toy store, I could only suspend my disbelief so much and this didn’t work very effectively.  The technical aspects of the show, especially the microphones, were poor and the blackouts were noticeably long and gave a choppy feel to the show.

The director, Rebecca Walk, did a nice job of using the space in the theater.  Overall she created some nice pictures and levels and performed to all three sides of the audience throughout the show.  I especially liked some of her creative ideas such as making the two stairways the keys of a piano for “chopsticks” and “heart and soul” and how the actors performed on the diagonal keeping open to all sides of the audience in various scenes.

A few numbers that worked well were “Welcome to Macmillan’s Toys”.  Anderson and Peck really sold that number and provided some great laughs in their commitment.  Jake Anderson and Betsy Christianson also did a nice job in “Do You Want to Play Games”.  Ms. Christianson has a nice voice, but lacked the age and maturity to carry the role of Susan Lawrence; most evident in her final scene when she discovers Josh Baskin is a 13-year-old boy.

The costuming was fun.  I enjoyed the array of colors and the bringing back of all the ‘80’s clothing and styles.  The props and toys of the ‘80’s also were nicely done.  This enhanced the show and made for some fun scenes.  On the whole it was an entertaining evening and this is a family friendly show that you can definitely bring the kids to.  Is it a polished performance?  No.  Does it have some strong moments?  Yes.  Should you attend?  Well…are you are a fan of the movie and live close to Magna? Then yes!  Is this a show you should venture out of your way to attend? No.  If you are a theater snob, definitely don’t attend.  But if you are a casual theatergoer and want a fun outing with the kids and family, this may be a good pick!

BIG runs from Feb 8-Mar 2 at the Empress Theatre in Magna.  Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the door or online at: www.empresstheatre.com.    

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