Free tickets from a friend sent my companion and me to a production of the musical Big staged by the Berkeley Playhouse on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July. My companion grew up in London and spent many an afternoon and evening in that greatest of theatre-city’s myriad venues seeing the greatest British actors of the later part of the twentieth-century. Never one to hold this lucky start in life against her partner or anyone else, she is no snob and embraces the live and the local from the West End to the East Bay.
Berkeley Playhouse has its home in the Julia Morgan Theatre, named after the famous Bay Area architect. The building is a half mile down College Avenue from Morgan’s alma mater, the University of California. Set on the gracious grid of streets gently inclining from the foot of the steep Berkeley Hills to the shores of the San Francisco Bay, the building was completed in 1910 as a Presbyterian church. The years following the 1906 earthquake marked a boom for Morgan’s still-young practice. In the aftermath of that catastrophe came a wave of immigration in the opposite direction from the Manifest Destiny: from west to east, from San Francisco to Berkeley and Oakland. Arts-and-Crafts houses and churches sprang up in what had been pasture-land and orchards.
The goodly Presbyterians of Berkeley moved to a new building on College Avenue in the 1970s and their original church became an arts center, then, a decade ago, a theatre. Morgan had designed a low-slung structure of redwood with stained-glass windows peering out from beneath rather ponderous eaves: a biggie-sized bungalow for believers.
The conversion to a theatre meant that the altar became a stage and that the windows Morgan had set off in contrast to the darkly stained wood were blocked out: when the muses displaced the apostles, the interior light would have to be artificial not natural. This makes her church-cum-theatre far more somber (one might even say more Presbyterian) than Morgan must have wanted, necessarily distorting her conception of the place. I’m all for repurposing churches, but such transformations can be more than a touch dissonant. I’ll never forget my first visit to the vast gothic reaches of the decommissioned St. Laurens’ Church in Alkmaar in The Netherlands in 1991 to practice for an organ competition. A rock-climbing competition was underway up the high whitewashed walls.
I’m not sure if Morgan would have felt honored or dismayed by having her name put to a theatre that she conceived of as a church.
Whatever the case, the place puts me in mind of an Adirondack hunting lodge. Entering the theatre offers a kind of rustic escape from the mellow urban climes of Berkeley, though why exactly one would want to seek refuge from a bright and breezy summer day is a bit of a mystery. The craziness of the world writ large can be happily be fled, a perfect afternoon in Northern California only with reluctance. Perhaps only the theatre can make good on that transaction.
Big the musical is based on the 1988 film of the same name—one of Tom Hanks’ early hits. It’s standard make-a-wish and suffer/enjoy the consequences stuff. A soon-to-be-teen boy frustrated with being condescended to and ordered about by adults—especially his cloying mother—can’t wait to be Big. Before you know it, little Josh has been turned into a physical adult by an automated carnival wizard at a northern New Jersey fun fair.
The overly sentimental treatment of these Oedipal themes of motherly love and resentment colliding with filial affection and disgust can be hard to take, though mom’s smotheringly maudlin effusions were delivered in Berkeley with terrifying and terrified commitment. Still, the gags about dirty socks and taking the garbage out got some laughs from the many kids in the audience.
But Josh becomes a man only on the outside. Inside he remains a child. Fleeing from home, he soon finds himself promoted to vice president at a faltering toy company run by corporate hacks with no regard for kids and, more fatally, no childish fantasy—no sense of fun. The most famous scene in the movie comes when Josh dances around on a giant floor piano keyboard, stomping out melodies, eventually in tandem with the toy company chief, in the showroom of FAO Schwartz on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
That tuneful set-piece and the pleasantly kid-friendly plot already made Big an alluring target for conversion to a musical, a retrofit that duly came in 1996 in the capable hands of composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby (with book by John Weidmann). Their songs make abundant use of descending bass-lines above which melody lines strive upward towards independence (from parents and convention) and towards the fulfillments and disappointments of love. The composer/lyricist pair capably command an entertaining range of styles: perky teen tunes, lush Broadway solos and duets, exuberant production numbers, pseudo-Modernist choruses, a clever send-up of Mozartean classicism to capture the dreadful trial of a grown-up dinner party to which Josh’s new adult girlfriend (also an executive in the toy company) drags him to meet her awful friends.
The story revolves therefore around a boy on the threshold of puberty catapulted into a romance with a grown woman who is already in a sordid affair with yet another mid-level executive in the toy company. Sex is the elephant in the room. For an American family matinée this beast should be cuddly and cute rather than urgent and threatening. On the Berkeley boards, as on Broadway, it is fascinating to see how this confrontation is handled.
When Susan maneuvers her way into Josh’s apartment with a bottle of champagne in her purse and hopes of seduction in her heart, he eventually invites her to stay for a “sleep-over,” informing her matter-of-factly that he has “to be on top.” Josh then climbs to the upper bunk bed and flops down to sleep. Her later lessons in carnal knowledge, if any, are not imparted on stage. What Josh will do with that knowledge on his return to teendom and the girl he covets back in New Jersey is not broached either.
Especially in Berkeley, with its long tradition of social sensitivity, with many a #MeToo and Black Lives Matter placard in the mullioned arts-and-crafts windows, one has to wonder about a show like Big. Even if the Julia Morgan encourages escape and blots out the sun, the world has a way of seeping into the theatre—and not only because the news is full of Jeffrey Epstein and his depredations
(Im)mature Josh is the titular center of the entertainment, but Susan steals the limelight towards the end of the first of the musical’s two acts when her string of songs fills her with agency and desire. She knows what she wants: Josh. True, she has no idea that he is really just child, even if what attracted her to him is his guileless, juvenile behavior.
When the lights came up for intermission, my companion pointed out that, even without Epstein (and Clinton and Dershowitz and others) in the headlines, the gender roles could not have been reversed. Imagine the Berkeleyites delighting in a thirty-something man conniving his way under cover of song into the bunkbed of a thirteen-year-old girl inhabiting the body of a full-grown woman. Yet the other way around meets no resistance. My companion provided her own interpretation: women have always been infantilized, so to put one in the junior role would be not just creepy, but redundant. Even when they grow up, women are rarely allowed to be Big.