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Big -10/20/1998

Book by John Weidman. Music by David Shire. Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. Cast: Cory Austin, Mary Callanan, Jeni Cook, Dena DiGiacinto, Kelley Faulkner, Russell Aaron Fischer, Blake Sidney Galler, Katie Hackett, Patrick Herwood, Kevin M. Laughon, Brenda McEldowney, Greg Mills, Michelle K. Moore, Michael Shiles, Todd Underwood, Josh Walden, Bridget Walders, Steven Ray Watkins, Noah Weisberg, Amy Beth Woden.

Director: Frank Lombardi. Choreographer: Karma Camp. Musical Director: Ross Scott Rawlings. Scenic Designer: James Kronzer. Costume Designer: William Ivey long. Lighting Design: John Paul Szczepanski. Sound Designer: Matt Elie. Original tour direction by Eric D. Schaeffer.

Based on the motion picture ''BIG'' written by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg.

A NETworks presentation in the News-Gazette Broadway Series.

October 20, 1998. Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois, Champaign.

For information, visit the Assembly Hall homepage at http://www.assembly.uiuc.edu


Given the name, you might expect ''big'' to be the very definition of a big musical.

But there are no helicopters warming up on stage, no chandeliers dropping from the Heavens, and nary a dancing wildebeast to be found.

Instead, ''big'' is about people.

Based on the hit movie directed by Penny Marshall, ''big'' has a solid pedigree and winning ways. On film, Tom Hanks broke out as a megastar when he took on this role of a boy who makes a wish, ends up in a man's body, and has to find out what it means to grow up.

It didn't do well when it hit Broadway, however, and got pretty much stiffed by the Tony committee. But ''big'' has been much revised and revamped since then, with changes to the book and the songs to create a simpler, cleaner touring version of the show.

The result is a sweet, human, funny, touching musical.

After seeing it at the Assembly Hall, audiences had to be wondering what the heck Broadway was waiting for.

David Shire's kicky pop score seems right to express a kid's version of a musical, and Richard Maltby Jr.'s lyrics are quite wonderful.

Maltby proves once again (as he did in ''Baby'' and the ''Closer Than Ever'' revue) that he can put his finger on precise moments and emotions in ordinary people's lives. The lyrics also carry the plot transitions along, moving the action forward instead of just sitting still.

I'm not as crazy about John Weidman's book, especially some of the motivating moments, but it's good enough to pass muster. And if the show in general lacks a splashy opening and a satisfying finale, there's still enough between the curtains to keep ''big,'' well, big enough.

The NETworks production that passed through the Assembly Hall showcased excellent voices, a good deal of energy, and top-notch musical direction and orchestrations.

At the center of things, Greg Mills made a marvelous Josh. Agile and lithe as a dancer, and a pleasant singer to boot, Mills personified the boyish charm that makes Josh appealing.

When it came to the marquee scenes -- like dancing on the oversized keyboard -- Mills got the job done.

Both major women in the cast had terrific voices, selling the score's big songs beautifully. As Susan, the love interest, Jeni Cook made ''Stars, Stars, Stars'' pretty and romantic, and ''Let's Not Move Too Fast'' funny and bright.

But the smaller role of Josh's mother gets the real knock-out song -- a sentimental valentine called ''Stop, Time,'' that ought to replace ''Sunrise, Sunset'' at bar mitzvahs and graduations. The mom in this cast, Mary Callanan, let loose a stirring ''Stop, Time'' that should have had 'em shivering in their seats.

In featured roles, Michael Shiles was amiable as Mr. MacMillan, who runs the toy company; Russell Aaron Fischer came through as Billy's funky best friend; and Blake Sidney Galler shone as Young Josh, especially when he sang ''I Want to Know.''

Steven Ray Watkins was good as the dad and as a harried toyman, while Todd Underwood's dancing helped levitate several numbers.

The only false note in the cast was Patrick Herwood's snaky take on bad guy Paul. He telegraphed that Paul was a baddie and then some, when a subtler approach would've fit in better with the style of the production.

James Kronzer's scenic design was a mixed bag, with some interesting visuals and fun set pieces, but too many things placed too deep into the wings for big chunks of the audience to see. I also thought the toy store and Josh's fizzy pop loft were a bit too bare.

That said, the set changes were smooth as silk and unobtrusive, and there was good work with backdrops and scrims.

All in all, the NETworks version of ''big'' was fairly small in terms of stage business, but it made its impact nonetheless.

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