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Theatre in Review: Gigantic (Vineyard Theatre/Theatre Row)

Max Wilcox, Ryann Redmond. Photo by Carol Rosegg

At the intermission of Gigantic, my companion turned to me and remarked, "This is the quintessential New York Musical Theatre Festival show." In all my theatergoing days, I cannot remember such a swift, accurate summary. Gigantic, which was indeed developed at NYMF, is a perfect specimen of it: It is high-concept (its original title was Fat Camp), dedicated to pursuing a single joke to its absurd extremes, and paced by a relentlessly upbeat pop-rock score. I guess there's nothing wrong with this formula as a starting point, but, in the case of Gigantic, the result is flat and tasteless, desperately in need of an infusion of wit.

The book, by Randy Blair and Tim Drucker, is based on the idea that there is something inherently hilarious about a gaggle of hefty teenagers at one of those weight-loss camps that advertise in the back of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. (Blair's lyrics work the same narrow vein of humor until it is totally strip-mined.) Welcome to Camp Overton, "the number-three weight loss camp in Southern Pennsylvania," which is presided over by the trim, athletic Mike and Sandy. (Among Gigantic's store of flabby running jokes, we are told Mike and Sandy have been engaged for 15 years, a number that occasionally causes Sandy to melt down.) The campers include Robert, the official bad boy, who launches a black market in candy for the rest of the kids. He sings, "Ever since I was an itty bitty baby/I was bigger than all the rest/Mama used to joke that when she nursed me/She had YooHoo in her breast." This early number constitutes a preview of coming attractions; there's plenty more where it came from.

Then there's Darnell Parnell, who has 17 million YouTube followers, but is afraid to talk to a live girl. (When a likely lady passes by in the cafeteria, he stares down at his bowl of rice and says, "I'm just bonding with my Uncle Ben.") Anshel is Jewish and nerdy -- he says things like "Oh by G-hyphen-D." He became a social outcast at school when he came out as a descendent of William Howard Taft. In the girls' cabin, there's Daphne, who is slutty and on the prowl (she has a number called, yes, "Hungry For It"); a black girl named Vanessa Williams (you can imagine the fun they have with that); and Taylor, the winsome heroine and possibly the only camper who actually intends to hunker down and lose some pounds. Daphne quickly restyles Taylor in her own trampy image, after which Taylor quickly catches Robert's eye.

The Robert-Taylor romance provides the show's spine, with trouble arriving in the form of Brent, Mike's lean-and-hungry nephew -- one of the camp's few success stories -- who, in his new role as junior counselor, torments the campers. He causes "an irretrievable sewage problem" at the cheerleaders' camp next door, so Camp Overton gets an infusion of leggy young lovelies with attitude to spare. One of them is Ashley, the very girl that Robert, bragging, has tagged as his paramour from home. She makes short work of that lie, destroying his reputation camp-wide and damaging his romance with Taylor. Meanwhile, Mike and Sandy will lose much-needed grant money if they can't account for a significant group loss of poundage before a government inspector comes to visit.

To the degree that any of these tedious shenanigans are amusing you can thank a hard-working and often charming cast. Max Wilcox finds the uncertainty under Robert's brash exterior -- he is haunted by the day that his overweight caused a drum kit to collapse in front of his fellow students -- thus making him more likeable than he has any right to be. The same goes for the Broadway veteran Ryann Redmond (Bring It On, If/Then) as Taylor, her straightforward sincerity standing out among all the fat gags. (This is the kind of show that exploits its characters' condition until, just before the finale, it decides to applaud them for learning to love themselves.) As Ashley, Taylor Louderman amusingly reprises her hot-cheerleader persona from Bring It On. Andrew Durand honestly earns a few laughs as Brent, whose schemes tend to explode in his face. Burke Moses and Leslie Kritzer constitute luxury casting in the roles of Mike and Sandy, who have little more to do than put up with some wan Fifty Shades of Gray jokes. Watching Kritzer being forced to run around in disguise as an angry mountain man -- allegedly the camp's only runaway -- and deliver a number called "Haterade," all I could think was, Can't somebody find this gal a Broadway show?

Blair and Drucker come up with a few funny ideas -- including a competitive talent show that features a riotous spoof of The Crucible and a Hamilton-style tribute to President Taft -- but the book simply isn't funny enough. The score -- music by Matthew roi Berger -- contains too many similar-sounding numbers, but the late-in-the-evening number "One Shot" is delightful enough that one can easily imagine him and Blair writing a much better musical. Scott Schwartz directs like the pro he is, keeping the action moving at a good clip, aided by Chase Brock's choreography, which, unfortunately, if inevitably, relies on the supposedly humorous possibilities in putting hefty dancers through athletic paces.

Other production aspects are totally professional. Timothy R. Mackabee's scenery has its amusing touches, including an upstage forest drop, knotty-pine portals, a cafeteria wall dominated by a big Michelle Obama poster, and that collapsing drum kit. Jeff Croiter, working with striplights built seemingly into every vertical surface, adds pace and punch to each of the musical numbers. Gregory Gale's costumes are extraordinarily detailed and create a different persona for each of the campers. The sound design, by John Shivers and David Patridge, is a little overscaled for its Theatre Row venue, but it never becomes overwhelming.

A thin show about fat people, Gigantic tries to coast on the easy-sell premise that got it its festival exposure. But it lags in the execution department. It needs a considerable tone up if it is ever going to succeed. -- David Barbour

(4 December 2015)

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