You’re all familiar with Michael Larson, right? Not so much? I certainly wasn’t before I heard that Sandbox Theatre would tell his story through Big Money. Walking into Park Square Theatre, I happily traveled back in time to 1984 to join the live studio audience of the game show known as Press Your Luck. You know, that show where you yell, “No Whammies!” Larson is known as the man who cracked the code of the game board and won big, the most anyone had won on a game show up until that point. There’s so much more to his story, though, as you’ll learn throughout this biographical show.
Peter Heeringa plays Larson, and I found both him and the story so compelling. We learn that Larson sold marked up candy bars to his fellow students in grade school, opened checking accounts under fake names as an adult to take advantage of the sign up bonuses, and continually schemed up other ways of earning money that involved doing as little actual work as possible. There’s a handy timeline in the the program to give you a heads up on what’s portrayed in the show, so it’s easy to follow along.
Another helpful tool Sandbox provides is a light up Applause box so you know when you need to clap, just like an authentic game show. I really love the set and lighting design thanks to Leazah Behrens and Heidi Eckwall. Combined, they allow for that retro game show feel without making it overly cheesy. The set is simple, with 3 versatile contestant boxes, and performers carry folding chairs on and off stage as needed during speedy but captivating scene changes. (It feels a little silly to mention that, but if you’ve ever sat through seemingly hour-long scene changes, it’s something you’ll appreciate.) In the photo above, you can see the panels for the game board which also light up once they start playing the game. Sound and music designer Tim Donahue is essentially an additional cast member as he sits to the side of the stage and almost gives Big Money the feel of a live radio show as he adds many bells and whistles to the production.
One aspect of a Sandbox show that I always appreciate is the choreography. Every movement has intention behind it, and you’ll see repeated movements throughout. While they may be abstract at times, they will hold your attention, especially once you pick up on the repetition. Director Theo Langason has what I would think of as a tough job bringing together all the different pieces of ensemble-created work. Scenes come together through group collaboration little by little, and the director has to ensure the final result is cohesive.
Big Money takes a hard look at the life of Michael Larson and his schemes, and how his fixation on beating the system affected his relationships with his family, including his wife and daughter. He actually missed his daughter’s birthday to be on Press Your Luck as well as tried to take advantage of his brother to get unemployment benefits. The cast portrays his life with reverence, and they’ll make you think about why we’re drawn to these games of chance and why we root for the underdog to win.
If you’re finding yourself even more intrigued by Michael Larson now, check out this documentary about him, including footage from the show. I also recommend this post by Project Lead Derek Lee Miller. Kendra from Artfully Engaging and I had the pleasure of attending a rehearsal (Sandbox rehearsals are open to anyone, and I highly recommend you take them up on it) and I’d never seen what the process of ensemble-created theater looks like. Enjoy Kendra’s interview with Theo and Derek below.
Sandbox Theatre’s Big Money runs through January 28 at Park Square Theatre and I can confidently recommend you attend. Click here to purchase tickets.