Greg Evans
February 23, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

As gambles go, a Broadway musical ranks somewhere between a game of Russian roulette and a QVC buying spree during bad cable reception. So it’s no wonder that director Mike Ockrent is pacing the floor of a lower Manhattan rehearsal studio as he watches the stars of this season’s most ambitious production, Big, behave like, well, children.

Daniel Jenkins (Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), a handsome but gawky 33-year-old actor who looks not unlike Tom Hanks, the star of the 1988 hit movie on which the musical is based, is playing a 13-year-old boy trapped through some hocus-pocus in the body of a grown man. He and his leading lady, Crista Moore (Gypsy), bounce merrily together on an inflatable castle, then move to a bunk bed for what Moore’s character assumes will be an altogether different round of bouncing. This being a musical, Moore expresses her excitement about the possibility of falling in love by launching into a song called ”Isn’t It Magic?,” but Ockrent interrupts her. There’s a problem: Jenkins — like any real 13-year-old boy — can’t figure out what to do with his hands during the number.

”How about a magic trick?” suggests lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. (cocreator of Ain’t Misbehavin’), from the sidelines.

”No,” says Ockrent. ”He’s supposed to be 13, not 7.”

Actually, a little magic would be in order. When Big opens on Broadway April 25, after a Detroit tryout, this $10 million song-and-dance version of the movie will be one of the most expensive musicals ever mounted on stage. And though it is receiving good advance buzz in the theater world, it is also burdened with great expectations. The high-caliber creative team behind the musical could fill an orchestra pit with Tonys, Grammys, Emmys, and even an Oscar (David Shire, who composed the Big score, received the 1979 best-song Academy Award for Norma Rae‘s ”It Goes Like It Goes”). But once it opens, Big‘s biggest competition may be its Penny Marshall-directed celluloid self, which grossed $114 million. Whatever this production’s merits, audiences could flinch at paying up to $70 to see a story they’ve seen before.

”I thought it was the worst idea I ever heard,” recalls Shire, who was given the idea by his wife, actress-singer Didi Conn (You Light Up My Life), after she saw the movie on cable four years ago. With the notable exceptions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and the family-friendly Beauty and the Beast, New York audiences in recent years have welcomed film-to-stage transfers with all the warmth of Margo Channing air-kissing Eve Harrington. The Goodbye Girl (1993) barely gave Martin Short a chance to say ”Hello”; Nick & Nora (1991), featuring the martini-swigging couple of The Thin Man movies, stumbled into the gutter; and My Favorite Year (1992) was nobody’s favorite anything. Victor/Victoria is currently a hot ticket with Julie Andrews’ name above the title, but when a flu-stricken Andrews recently hung up her tux for 11 performances, ticket sales — and confidence in the show’s ability to survive a replacement star — plummetted.

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