Encore Michigan

‘Big’ is Big Fun at The Barn

Review July 18, 2019 Bridgette Redman

AUGUSTA, Mich.–Making musicals out of movies, especially movies from bygone decades, is a popular genre that plays well not only to those who remember the original musical, but to new generations who are experiencing it for the first time.

Augusta’s Barn Theatre is currently performing one of those feel-good, remember-when musicals—Big the Musical, based off the 1988 movie directed by Penny Marshall and starring Tom Hanks. In 1996 it was made into a musical and now it makes the rounds as a show that is charming, sweet and cute, much like the original.

It’s a story of Josh, a 12-year-old, who like most kids his age, really wants to be a grown-up. He makes a wish at a carnival and overnight finds himself turned into a grownup. He heads to the big city, visiting a toy store and learning just what it means to be an adult.

In the Barn production, directed by Patrick Hunter, the adult Josh is played by Jamey Grisham who expertly makes the audience believe he is a kid in adult clothing. He has a refreshing child-like way about him that is so convincing, you’re not sure how anyone actually mistakes him for an adult.

It is Grisham who gives this show much of its charm and sweetness. It’s even okay when he kisses Susan (Melissa Cotton Hunter) because he is so convincingly a 13-year-old.

Hunter and Grisham, a veteran of many Barn productions, work with an ensemble of teens (and some apprentices made to look like teens) and gives them leeway to make broad choices in capturing the youth of the 80s (who really aren’t that different from the youth of today). This is especially seen in Aiden Wall’s Billy Kopecki who attempts a scratchy voice when he isn’t singing to set him apart from the others. Wall maintains a boisterousness that renders well the youthfulness that Josh has left behind.

Samantha Rickard’s Mrs. Baskin adds a layer to the show with bittersweet songs about motherhood’s joys and pains. She’s especially winsome in “Stop, Time” where she wishes that she could have stopped time to enjoy every age that is now gone and the boy she loved with it.

Hunter is a joy to watch as her Susan goes from superficial seductress to a real woman who is slowly getting back in touch not just with her inner child but with herself and with what is real and genuine in her life. Her transformation is almost as total as Josh’s is from child to adult to child.

Hunter makes her first appearance with “My Secretary’s in Love,” a hilarious addition to the original Broadway show. But it is in such numbers as “Little Susan Lawrence” and “Dancing All the Time” where she brings out a woman impossible to not fall in love with.

It’s a busy show for her, as she is also the choreographer, ensuring that everyone’s dance numbers reveal something about their character, especially when the children dance with their parents in “Cross the Line.”

While the role has few lines, first-year apprentice Madison Merlanti excelled as Miss Watson, Josh’s secretary. It didn’t matter where she was on the stage or what she was doing, her broad choices were consistent and always entertaining.

Robert Newman earned applause just by walking on stage, which isn’t all that surprising when a “star” is brought in to a local production, even though he is by now almost a “regular” on their stage. He is the CEO of Macmillian Toys who sees brilliance in Josh because of his insight into toys and into what children want. He’s got all the spit and polish of a CEO and the charisma that makes him a benevolent dictator. The iconic scene in the toy store where they sing about “Fun” is captivating.

Michael Wilson Morgan brings back the wild fashion fun of the 80s with the costumes he creates for the teen ensemble while reminding us of the preppy side with the suits the MBAs wear. It’s fun storytelling that never distracts or overwhelms.

The set designers clearly indulged their inner child with fun sets that quickly moved from suburbia to bus stations to toy stores to downtown visages. Steven Lee Burright and Russ Skell also created nostalgic set pieces for Zoltar and to populate Josh’s New York apartment.

Props master Sam Rudy managed to find authentic toys and games from the 80s, filling up the toy shop with props that could actually be played with and survive rough treatment.

Big the Musical may not be a musical that will survive the ages or make anyone’s list of “greats,” but it is a beautiful look at the child-like virtues it is easy to lose with the passage of years and what it might look like if we were to hang on to our enthusiasm and awe. It’s also perfect summer fare that provides opportunity for actors of all ages to entertain audiences of all ages.

Week of 9/16/2019

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