The opening number of Gigantic, a new musical set at a summer camp for hefty teens, is actually called “The Weight Is Over.” That’s about the high tide of wit in this chore of a show, which the valuable Vineyard Theatre, in exile on Theatre Row while its home base on 15th Street undergoes renovations, has somehow chosen to produce. Perhaps Gigantic, formerly known as Fat Camp, looked like a good idea on paper, and it certainly seems to have been written from a manual. That opening number performs all the official duties prescribed by Handout No. 1 in musical-writing workshops: It introduces us to the setting (Camp Overton, “the number three weight loss camp in Southern Pennsylvania”), the protagonist (rebel drummer Robert Grisetti), his antagonist (Brent, a sadistic dimwit who previously lost 200 pounds), the romantic interest, the rest of the cast, the theme (love yourself), and the tone (juvenile). By the end of this ten-minute slog, you could probably write the rest of the show yourself — and I wish you had.
I have nothing against silly musicals if they’re smartly crafted or thrillingly tuneful or genuinely funny or at least touch on some form of reality. Gigantic goes zero for four. To begin with, reality is not on the menu here. Neither the fat kids nor the thin adults (Head Counselor Mike and Assistant Head Counselor Sandy, engaged for 15 years) resemble any known humans except ones previously found in bad librettos. In case you can’t read the desperate signaling of the actors, the overeager costumes by Gregory Gale help you identify each camper’s sole trait: the “slut,” the thug, the nerd, and the goody-goody. Oddly, their weight is a nonissue, treated seriously and touchingly only once in the entire two hours, when the goody-goody (nicely played by Ryann Redmond) and the rebel drummer fret that their bodies somehow disqualify them from romance. Most of the time, though, weight is just an excuse for the same kinds of crude jokes (moobs, cankles, laxatives) the show theoretically deplores. (I mean, really, Camp Overton?) The authors aren’t actually interested in the drama of not fitting in; the topic is merely a fat suit they’ve slipped over their naked ambition to exploit a saleable theme. Gigantic is, in that sense only, a “special” show, like the infinitely tighter Altar Boys (about a Jesus-loving boy band) and the infinitely funnier Avenue Q (dirty puppets).
It certainly isn’t special in its craft; it is neatly put together only in the way a knockoff watch is. (It ticks, then dies.) The book by Randy Blair and Tim Drucker quickly veers off topic into bizarrely random stabs at humor; by the second act — featuring a serial killer, a dance involving murdered animals, and a rendition of The Crucible in cheerleader rap — they appear to have given up on coherence completely. Likewise, the songs, though properly placed according to protocol, are depressingly vapid: all hook and no fish. How could they be otherwise when the music (by Matthew roi Berger) is either bizarrely mismatched to the action (a jig for a section of a song about the camp’s rules?) or generic: the same overarranged, overamplified, and overbelted lite rock that every new niche musical is stuck with. And the lyrics (by, again, Randy Blair) are so clumsy that even the characters have to make fun of them:
Mike: Sandy, that’s not a true rhyme.
Sandy: It’s close.
Mike: Like you were this morning?
In this context, the few verbal felicities (“a little sweating in a rural setting”) seem like accidents, not achievements; but if the authors are capable of craft, why do they so vigorously eschew it? A clue may be in Scott Schwartz’s desperate and amateurish staging, so full of winks you would think the show wasn’t about the Overton part of the title but the camp. A self-conscious montage number (sample lyric: “Passage of time / losing weight montage yeah!”) is accompanied by a dance of ensemble members hoisting suns and moons, and fast-forwarding the hands of clocks. Moronic cheerleaders from a neighboring camp show up to learn a lesson about inner beauty while posing in wee bikinis. Such gestures — and really the show consists of nothing but — make it depressingly clear that the material has been deliberately dumbed down, as if the authors believed that their nominal subject were so distasteful it could never succeed on its own. Is this what we are reduced to? As a former (and probably future) husky person, I resent that; as someone who loves good musicals I resent it more.
Gigantic is at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row through December 20.