Theater / Performance

The Big Bang (Kimmel Center Innovation Studio, 07Oct11)

A representative moment featuring silly hats (photograph from the Kimmel Center website)

We caught this particular piece of live performance on a whim; Philadelphia Funsavers guide allowed last-minute purchase of some cheaper tickets.  Even with the Funsavers discount, the cost ended up as a total of $50 for 2 tickets…..a lot of hidden fees were tacked on by the facility and raised the final price.  I cannot say I was pleased about this, given that the funsavers guide advertised $17.50.

What They Say It Is Supposed To Be:

The Kimmel Center official site advertises the show as:

Join us in the elegant (borrowed) Park Avenue apartment of Dr. Sid and Sylvia Lipbalm as two wannabe producers, Jed and Boyd (Ben Dibble and Tony Braithwaite), try to line up backers for The Big Bang, the most expensive and lavish Broadway musical ever written. With a budget of $83,000,000, a cast of 318 wearing 6,428 costumes and 1,400 wigs, the pitched show will depict the entire history of the world – from the formation of the planets to the building of the pyramids, from Napoleon’s France to present.

It sounded entertaining enough to buy the tickets; Tara and I share an interest in Broadway-style performance, and comedy is a more forgiving format.  From the preview descriptions, I was expecting something along the lines of The Producers or Mel Brooks, and unlike other recent theater experiences (I’m looking in your direction, August: Osage County), the advertisement did a good job of preparing me for the actual experience.

The Big Bang is light comedy performed by a dexterous cast of exactly 3 talented actors who change roles (and costumes) at light speed.  Don’t expect this show to challenge your moral or ethical compasses; the play is stuffed with jokes about stock historical characters and cliche ethnic stereotypes.  Napoleon becomes a goofy parody resembling something out of a sitcom, Cleopatra is ‘rowed’ around the stage on a rolling desk, and Jimi Hendrix is resurrected in full Woodstock glory, only he’s wearing a lampshade for a hat.  We’re not talking deep stuff here, people–but it’s mostly funny, and genuinely creative.  An astute observer will notice that the play’s rapid-fire depiction of world history carefully sidesteps any uncomfortable references to African slave-trading and the entirety of Muslim history, but again, this show is aiming for gen-pop laughter, not PC issues hour.

The primary entertainment value and essential “hook” of The Big Bang is the frame of meta-theater; the audience is not actually watching the show, but rather, we are the invited guests of producers-to-be, supposedly (pre)viewing a performance-pitch in an upscale apartment living room.  Accordingly, the ‘would-be’ show is in a very rudimentary state, leading the actors to “create” props and costumes from whatever happens to be laying around the apartment.  This device is used to great comic effect, mixing vaudeville-style humor and ‘the show must go on'” mantra of classic Broadway theater.  Although the gimmick of “hey, I’ll just put this funny piece of fabric over my head–viola, a hat!” can get a little repetitive or predictable over the course of the show, it’s pretty amazing how you’ll stil be laughing at the sight gags right up to the last scene. It works, so why mess with it?

Overall, I did like the show and felt it was worth my $25, but just barely.  It did feel kind of short (billed as 80 minutes); perhaps this is meant to be another aspect of the meta-theater theme, as the program suddenly concludes when the imagined owners of the ‘apartment’ call to say they’ll be coming home early.  Still, I was unable to stop myself from thinking that the show might have included at least a few more scenes for the money.  Some of the jokes were a bit abrasive or awkward, verging into that area where you’re not sure if parody is sufficient license for ethnic jokes and trite pop-culture stereotypes.  Some songs were less inspired than others, but in honesty, most of the singing and lyrics were lively and witty enough to keep you laughing and involved in the show.  Things move quickly in The Big Bang, so even if you didn’t like a specific number, the ADHD format meant that you wouldn’t be bored for long.  The piano player (the vital third member of the cast, who plays continuously throughout the show) really does an incredible job of managing the vibe and tone of each set piece, and nicely offsets the high-octane (and genuinely comedic) acting that flies around the stage.

I’d give this show a “recommended” stamp, specifically if you can take advantage of a Funsavers discount.  I don’t know that full ticket price is quite justified, given the brevity and generally lowbrow topical format.  But if a faux-Broadway show where the cast hands out Chinese fortune cookies that include a request to “Invest Now!” sounds good to you, then you’ll probably find it worth your time.

The energy and commitment of The Big Bang’s tiny ensemble is truly commendable.  This group of three actors fully occupy the stage and create a sum product that well exceeds their small numbers; though the entire cast is comprised of only three men, these dynamic players manage to sing, dance, and even strip completely naked(!) during the 80 minute roller coaster survey of human history.

Live musical accompaniment on a baby grand piano is a welcome and pleasant feature of this show, defining the vibe and spirit of the entire performance.  The actors are obviously talented and their spirited delivery is comical—it would be hard to leave this show not feeling wowed by their high energy.  I occasionally found myself wondering if the writers relied too much on ethnic stereotypes as a basis for humor; one example would be Cleopatra as a modern diva who shouts orders in barbed American slang.  I’m not saying it wasn’t mostly funny—I just felt like some of these jokes didn’t work very well.



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