Body image is a rare and difficult subject matter for a musical, especially a musical comedy. Hairspray explored the topic beautifully, with big-hearted characters and a message of acceptance that sent audience members of all shapes, sizes, and creeds out on a major high. Gigantic, a new Vineyard Theatre production written by Randy Blair, Tim Drucker, and Matthew roi Berger, has a similarly well-intentioned goal, but the result isn't as effective. Instead of empowering the group this musical wishes to celebrate, it ends up alienating them.
Gigantic originally premiered in 2009 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival under the title Fat Camp, and it played a short 2012 run under the same title at the American Theatre of Actors. This version, a revised edition now running at the Acorn Theatre, features a brand-new cast (save one member) and a completely different creative team, led by director Scott Schwartz.
Gigantic is set at the bucolic Camp Overton, where Rubenesque teenagers head for a summer of healthy eating and exercise. Taylor (Ryann Redmond) has saved all her money so she could attend and lose weight before going back to school. Robert (Max Wilcox) is the complete opposite, too cool for school and determined to get thrown out.
Of course, camp owners Mike and Sandy (Burke Moses and Leslie Kritzer) won't let that happen as they await inspection from the state. So Robert, joined by two fellow campers, YouTube personality Darnell (Larry Owens) and Jewish Star Wars geek Anshel (Jared Loftin), hatch a plan to provide candy to all who want it. Along the way, romance unexpectedly blooms between him and Taylor, while a bitter counselor (Andrew Durand), infuriated by Robert's bravado, is hell-bent on destroying him.
There are several shortcomings in the material. Blair's lyrics ("Used to have more chins than Chinatown/but now I can see my d*ck when I look down") aren't nearly as clever as they could be, while roi Berger's score is an unremarkable mix of bubblegum pop and Broadway-style rock. The book offers a mixture of hackneyed characters including the stereotype of the cripplingly Jewish nerd, worn-out references like "#Blessed," and ham-fisted pop-culture parody that feels more juvenile than witty. (In one of the year's more absurd theatrical moments, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is skewered in a puzzling way.)
Ultimately, it is the way in which the creators try to earn empathy for their characters through malice that is the most troubling. Robert has been hiding a major, embarrassing secret that comes to light in the second half, when a trio of mean-girl cheerleaders (Taylor Louderman, Kalyn West, and Jennifer Geller, all perfect) are introduced and target the campers with fat-shaming vitriol. We are expected to suddenly feel bad for everyone, but the especially venomous dialogue is more believable than any of the other text in the script. It's surprisingly jarring, and sad that this is the only dialogue in the show that feels most true to life.
Fortunately, the cast is absolutely perfect, and director Schwartz guides them to distinct, over-the-top performances that still manage to feel emotionally grounded. Wilcox makes for an appealing, big-voiced leading man, while Redmond, a veteran of Broadway's Bring It On and If/Then, delivers a sweetly vulnerable, star-making performance as Taylor. Owens, the only holdover from the Fat Camp incarnations, is a hoot, perfectly matched with Bonnie Milligan as Daphne, the voluptuous and sassy object of his affection. Timothy R. Mackabee provides an interesting multilevel set, with believable costumes by Gregory Gale and appealing lighting by Jeff Croiter.
But no matter how well-acted or designed, no matter how upbeat its ending, one can't help but wonder if Gigantic really sides with the feelings of the rail-thin cheerleaders instead of the lovably unconventional heroes it purports to celebrate.