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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Max Wilcox and Ryann Redmond
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Slimming down is not always the wisest course of action. Gigantic, which just opened at the Acorn Theatre in a Vineyard Theatre production, may be about a group of obese high-schoolers learning to love themselves and each other despite their above-average heft. But from a theatrical standpoint, the show itself is noticeably underweight.

I was quite surprised to discover this about the musical that's been written by Randy Blair (book and lyrics), Tim Drucker (book), and Matthew roi Berger (music), choreographed by Chase Brock, and directed by Scott Schwartz, considering I'd seen and much enjoyed its previous two public incarnations in New York, first at the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival and then at the American Theatre of Actors in 2012, in both cases under the title Fat Camp. Each found a precise balance between earnestness and craziness, being simultaneously thunderously funny and honestly sweet while never becoming stickily maudlin—a difficult line to walk, but one the writers had little trouble negotiating.

Sometime during the last three and a half years, alas, the show has tipped into bland conventionality and lost the adventurous spark that once made it special.

The foundational story has not changed much. Still at the center of the action is Robert Grisetti, who's been shipped off for the summer to Camp Overton, where the intention is that he'll shed the pounds that are holding him back in life. Robert stands up to the dictatorial counselors, particularly the nasty, once-chubby-now-chiseled Brent, and falls for the heavyset Taylor instead of the gorgeous cheerleader he claims to be dating—and who, coincidentally, is herself at a nearby camp.

Andrew Durand and the company.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The overall arc has the same trajectory, and many of the songs have received at most mild tweaking. But a change of emphasis, in everything from writing to casting, has made all the difference. Gone is the gently wacky edge that gave the writers and performers the permission they needed to be weird, something that's absolutely required in a show like this one. (In other words, that tiny bit of "Camp" isn't just absent from the title.)

Robert, for example, had buried issues, but used to be an overboard-rebellious type, an intentional corruption of the classic handsome hero, which fueled the zaniness and, paradoxically, the believability he could land a hot girl like Ashley. Now, he's deeply psychologically damaged, a standard-issue victim who's all about overcoming his own failings rather than archetypal approximations thereof. More realistic? Yes. But nowhere near as clever, daring, or hilarious.

Other characters have received similar treatments that make them more aimed at forcing us to "care" or falling into tired tropes than inspiring us to laugh. Take the promiscuous Daphne, who's no longer an overblown comedic grotesque but is now just a garden-variety slut. Or Vanessa Williams, a new character who's been added expressly so people can make fun of her name. Ashley and her vacuous friends really have (spoilers!) hearts of gold, but just need to be encouraged to be nice. And head counselors Sandy and Mike, originally intentionally hollow authoritarians, now have their own subplot (will they marry after fifteen years of engagement???) and an elaborate, irritating second-act number that does nothing but steal time from the people and situations we're (ostensibly) more interested in.

So different are the styles that the pre-existing and new material do not mesh, and attempts to bring parity to the tone deflate the proceedings just when they should most pop. (Brent and his scheming sister Britta get the worst of this, and Brent's ultimate fate feels both bewilderingly wrong and unearned.) Whereas in earlier forms the show was a glib take-off on camp movies, with everything structured to riff on or bounce off of their clich├ęs, the writers now seem content trying to smush it into a well-meaning member of the genre.

As a result, things are listless and leaden—not terrible, but not invigorating. The dip in energy has really affected the musical numbers, too. They're still cute and catchy fusions of pop and musical theatre styles (most notably the first- and second-act finales, "Top of the World" and "A Little Bit Like Love"), if sometimes obvious (the new opening number, titled "The Weight Is Finally Over"), but tend to come across as desperate adornments and not integrated, necessary compositions that flow effortlessly.

Only two performers succeed in spite of the obstacles piled around them. Andrew Durand takes his dopey-jock spin on Brent right to the edge, and nails every laugh he's handed; beyond not playing the dumb-guy-who-thinks he's smart angle, he's deployed both hyperactivity and a jittery, unsteady physicality to capture in precise terms the anguish of a fat kid who suddenly becomes a heartthrob. And Leslie Kritzer makes a sprawling comedic feast out of the robotic Sandy, no small feat given the plodding lines that pass for most of her jokes ("I haven't felt this good since I played Potiphar's Wife in Joseph at the New London Barn Playhouse!").

Of the rest, Ryann Redmond finds a genuine but unfocused sentimentality in Taylor; Taylor Louderman has the general mien Ashley needs, though not the bubbling-over presence; and Jared Loftin suffices (with some pushing) as the fat Jewish nerd Anshel. The rest of the cast members, who include a talented but undercommitted Max Wilcox as a too-vanilla Robert, and an at-sea Burke Moses as Mike, are fairly forgettable, singing and dancing well enough but possessing no clear purpose or direction.

Schwartz and Brock do make the most of them, though, and have staged things well enough on Timothy R. Mackabee's wooden-bunkhouse set. (The colorful costumes are by Gregory Gale, the lights by Jeff Croiter.) This isn't a poor-looking or poor-sounding show, but it's one that doesn't seem to know what it's supposed to be or how it's supposed to accomplish its goals.

If it's intentionally keeping its heft down, however, in this way—as in so many others—it really shouldn't try so hard. I'd prescribe a box of donuts, stat. Sure, the caloric density may be murder, but Gigantic is in vital need of a sugar rush.

Through December 20
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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