‘Big,’ in Berkeley, is a charming, funny, frothy musical

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Preteen Josh Baskin’s life has hit a brick wall, especially since he’s developed a tongue-tied crush on an “older woman,” age 13.

But then a carnival fortune-telling machine grants his wish to be big.

The question, however, is if being big — a grown-up, that is — can be all he’d wanted?

Well, not exactly.

Adam Niemann (Josh Baskin, right) and DC Scarpelli (George MacMillan) happily pose for pre-production shot of Berkeley Playhouse’s “Big, The Musical.” Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

Charmingly and comically yet poignantly portrayed by Adam Niemann, Josh, even in an adult body, remains as awkward as might be imagined.

  • Even with help from his best buddy, Billy Kopecki (played effectively with zest opening night by Youth Cast member David Rukin).
  • Even though he’s offered a job as vice-president in charge of production by toy company head honcho George MacMillan (effusively portrayed as a Daddy Warbucks look-alike by DC Scarpelli), who thinks Josh has special insight into toys, kids and having fun.
  • Even though Susan (sung by Alison Quin, who, like Niemann and Scarpelli, has a Big voice), an attractive woman well over age 13, is drawn to him.

“Big, the Musical” now at the Berkeley Playhouse’s 328-seat Julia Morgan Theater, is a 1996 Broadway adaptation of the charming 1988 Penny Marshall-directed movie fable that starred Tom Hanks, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in it.

Because I’d adored the film, I had prepared myself to be disappointed in the two-hour musical, which I hadn’t seen before.

But I wasn’t.

In fact, I found it incredibly bodacious, mainly because of an effervescent book by John Weidman and 21 mostly bubbly, push-the-plot-forward musical numbers by composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. that overcome any short-shrifting of emotional drama.

Everyone who’s seen the flick certainly remembers the time in which Hanks stomps out a staccato melody on a giant piano keyboard in a toy store.

Here, a simulation — with Josh and Mr. MacMillan lighting up the keys — works almost as commendably (even with the element of surprise missing).

Totally delightful is Niemann’s imitation of a boy trapped in a man’s body. His body language, undoubtedly buoyed by director Ryan Weible, is exquisitely self-conscious and funny.

But there are other mirthful moments, most of them lifted from the movie — including a hilarious slapstick segment in which Josh mishandles the intake of beluga caviar and alcohol; clowning in a so-called adult bedroom chock-filled with oversized beanbag chair and overstuffed animal, a pinball machine and bunk-beds; Josh’s total misreading as “a sleepover” of Susan’s attempt at seduction; choreography that mocks perfectly the uptightness of corporate execs; and a vivacious dance sequence between youthful Josh and Billy.

Not to mention a perfectly executed nose-picking scene.

Other upsides?

The fast-moving, ever-changing set by Mark Mendleson is exciting, as is the lighting by John Di Giorgio. Costumes by Elizabeth Whitaker are alluring. And the stagecraft as a whole is memorable.

The live band in the pit, which didn’t drown out the voices, is also worth complimenting.

Any downsides?

The second act feels slightly sluggish when compared to the frothy first act, and the ending comes off as contrived and illogical (especially when Josh’s mom shows up out of the blue for a hug in a seedy warehouse).

Also, the 10-member Zohar Youth Cast (which alternates with the equally respectable and equally numbered Carnival Youth Cast) now and then misses a unison beat when singing, and just as occasionally is a wee bit out of sync as a dancing troupe.

However, none of that spoils the musical’s charm, which I — and, I suspect, most of those over-21 in the audience — would rate about an eight out of ten.

But while I, a geezer, have a little trouble remembering my own coming of age, virtually every tween-ager in the crowd opening night (likely a third of the audience) could relate, cheering at each song and roaring approvingly when the show was over.

They, I’m sure, would probably give it a 12.

“Big” will run at the Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., through July 28. Night performances, 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 1 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $45. Information: boxoffice@berkeleyplayhouse.orgor 510-845-8542.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →