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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Jackson Evans and Richard Ganoung dance on the ivories in First Stage's production of "Big: The Musical." (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

First Stage's "Big: The Musical" delights kids of all ages


Wide-eyed wonder is the best.

With children you can get smiles and you can get frowns and you can get scared.

But when you get wide-eyed wonder, it's amazing. And that's what you get with the production of "Big: the Musical," which opened at First Stage Children's Theater over the weekend.

My seatmate at the play was my 7-year-old grandson, Charlie. He's my first grandchild and a wonderful kid – smart, caring, a great athlete and a lot of fun. But he's not the most demonstrative kid in the world. Sometimes you wonder what he's thinking.

Not at this play. When a little boy, just about Charlie's own age, becomes an adult overnight, you could see hear the gasp of breath and see the wide-eyed wonder at this miracle of the theater. He was sitting back in his seat, and once the magic transformation took place, Charlie moved to the edge of it and stayed there.

The story of this play is wonderful. 13-year-old Josh Baskin likes an older girl but realizes he's too young. Then he can't get on the Wild Thunder ride because he's too short. So, he puts a quarter into the Great Zoltar booth and wishes he were big.

He gets a job, falls in love, learns to like being an adult, is in danger of losing his best friend, makes his mother incredibly sad and in the end, puts another quarter in because he realizes that, as he sings, "being big means you have to be a man." And that's not all it's cracked up to be.

The crowd of little people watching this show was almost a show in itself as they hung on every word, laughed at the funny stuff, stayed unusually quiet during the other stuff and almost fell out of their seats at the piano thing. (More about the piano thing in a minute.)

This show flies on a spectacular cast of adults and young people as First Stage continues to present plays at the highest level of professionalism you can see in Milwaukee. These plays may be intended for young people, but it's the adults who create the magic, both on stage and off.

We have to start with Jackson Evans, who has a long line of national and regional credits to his name. As the grown-up Josh he has it all – great timing, a wonderfully expressive voice, a body that moves in a thousand different directions and a special touch of warmth that makes you fall in love with him. He's a star of the brightest shining.

He is ably aided by other great adult actors and a disciplined and joyous cast of young people.

Beth Mulkerron, well known to Milwaukee audiences, plays the big Josh's love interest, and it is easy to see why he'd fall for her. She's beautiful, full of cute sex appeal and has a voice that seems touched by the angels. For those who have watched Milwaukee theater for a while, Mulkerron is a younger version of Linda Stephens, and perhaps the best this city has ever seen.

When she starts to figure out she's falling in love with big Josh, she sings of her youth, and how she got to where she is as a hard-driven marketing executive. When we hear her sing "... how did that little girl slip by?" you can feel the tears tugging.

And then there is Richard Ganoung, a founding member of Madison's Forward Theater Company. He plays Zoltar and the owner of a toy company where the big Josh gets a job. He's remarkably versatile and has the kind of visage that makes you pay attention.

And that brings us to the piano thing.

Mid-way through the first act, a large piano keyboard appears on stage. Ganoung and Evans dance on the keys, which light up with each touch of a foot. When they get into a two-player "Heart and Soul" you could hear the audible tapping of feet and smiles and giggles ripple through the crowd. It was a spectacular number and an example of some of the best choreography I've ever seen.

Jeff Whiting is a New York choreographer who here has taken a large cast of people who aren't really dancers and turned them into a tight ensemble with imaginative show-stopping stepping.

This production is the brainchild of Jeff Frank, the artistic director at First Stage and the director of this show. He has overseen many productions at First Stage, but, perhaps, none as spectacular as this one.

When it comes time to hand out prizes and praise, Frank should be first in line. He is the embodiment of the First Stage mission of "transforming lives through theater."


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