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BWW REVIEW: BIG FISH Now Spins Its Tale on a Smaller Scale

Book by John August; music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa; based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the Columbia motion picture written by John August; directed by Paul Daigneault; musical direction, Matthew Stern; choreography, Larry Sousa; orchestrations, August Eriksmoen; scenic design, Jenna McFarland Lord; costume design, Elisabetta Polito; lighting design, Karen Perlow; sound design, David Reiffel; projections design, Seaghan McKay; production stage manager, Marsha Smith; assistant stage manager, Michele Teevan

Cast in Alphabetical Order:

Josephine, Katie Clark; Girl in the Water, Sarah Crane; Young Will, Jackson Daley; Sandra Bloom, Aimee Doherty; Edward Bloom, Steven Goldstein; Amos Calloway/Dr. Bennett, Will McGarrahan; Don Price, Zaven Ovian; Jenny Hill, Sara Schoch; Will Bloom, Sam Simahk; Karl the Giant, Lee David Skunes; Zacky Price/Mayor, Daniel Scott Walton; The Witch, Aubin Wise

Performances and Tickets:

Now through April 11, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.BostonTheatreScene.com or by calling the Box Office at 617-933-8600.

Creators of the recent failed Broadway musical BIG FISH are testing the waters of regional theater with a more intimate, scaled back version of their splashy father-son story now premiering at Boston's SpeakEasy Stage through April 11. John August (book) and Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics) have reportedly worked closely with SpeakEasy's artistic director Paul Daigneault and music director Matthew Stern to strip away the show's former grandiose production elements to get to the true heart and soul of the tale.

With a cast of 12 instead of 21 and a scant six instead of 14 musicians in the pit, this little BIG FISH does succeed on many levels. Most importantly, the central conflict between the dreaming (and possibly scheming) father Edward Bloom (Steven Goldstein) and his oh-so-practical adult son Will (Sam Simakh) is both taut and tender - and very moving.

While Edward is a much beloved storyteller whose encounters with witches, giants, werewolves and mermaids have become legendary within the community, Will sees his father's fish tales as a dodge - a camouflage for the secret life he leads while on the road as a traveling salesman. With Edward suddenly dying of cancer and Will about to become a father himself, Will sets out to learn the truth about his father once and for all. Simultaneously suspecting the worst but hoping for the best, Will is determined to expose the man beneath the myth.

By weaving back and forth in time, BIG FISH brings Edward's vivid stories to life - either in flashback or in adult Will's memory. Each epic journey unfolds as a rousing musical number, with fantastic characters and cryptic adventures serving to teach young Will (Jackson Daley) valuable lessons in life. But young Will is as impenetrable as his older self. He dismisses his father's stories as self-aggrandizing and illogical and won't let imagination sweep him away.

Some of Lippa's songs work better than others in establishing Edward as a man whose dreams are bigger than his reality. "Be the Hero" is a swashbuckling opener that has Edward inspiring a reluctant young Will to become the author of his own life saga. "Stranger" is an aching ballad in which the adult Will expresses his angry determination to be less of a stranger to his future son than his enigmatic father has been to him. "This River Between Us" is a potent father-son duet that has both the ailing Edward and the tormented adult Will daunted by the widening emotional gulf they both so desperately want to bridge. Their final duet "What's Next" is a sentimental but never syrupy goodbye that at last unlocks Edward's greatest mystery for Will. With roles reversed and understanding achieved, the torch is passed and Edward's legacy is sealed.

Production numbers that depict Edward's excellent adventures from his high school days to his years in the circus are loads of fun and give the terrific ensemble, enhanced by Larry Sousa's fanciful choreography, ample opportunities to shine. But Lippa's softer ballads "Magic in the Man" and "I Don't Need a Roof" are less successful, rendering the always dependable Aimee Doherty as rather one-dimensional. Doherty does make the most of her role as the supportive Sandra, singing delicately and imbuing her Donna Reed-like wife and mother with genuine warmth and tenderness. She and Goldstein are particularly poignant together in "Daffodils," the Act I closer that culminates in a very endearing proposal of marriage. But the earlier ballad "Time Stops" has none of the magic or electricity needed to convey that Sandra and Edward have been captivated by love at first sight. Emotional lightning never strikes, and consequently the number falls flat.

The lack of chemistry between the happy couple may be due in part to Goldstein's easy-going manner as Edward. He simply doesn't possess the cheerful swagger or larger-than-life charisma to make his legendary status believable. Goldstein sings the score ably, but he doesn't switch from his older Walter Mitty persona to the dashing romantic figure needed when regaling his audience with stories from his youth. We never see the inspirational hero of Edward's epic adventures, only the average everyday working man who aspires to be the champion he has invented.

As the disciplined and straight-laced adult Will, Simakh is a simmering cauldron of suppressed emotion. His doubts, disappointments, fears and hopes all bubble inside him and escape almost uncontrollably in every gorgeous note he sings. His is a beautifully etched performance, full of aching loss and angry confusion. His inner struggles collide dramatically in his final scene with Goldstein, turning the initially tentative "What's Next" into a celebration and a catharsis. Simakh melds joy and sorrow brilliantly, embracing the song as a miraculous epiphany.

Steady support is offered by Katie Clark as Will's caring wife Josephine; Will McGarrahan as the sympathetic Dr. Bennett and the colorful circus emcee Calloway; Zaven Ovian as the obnoxious school bully Don Price; and Aubin Wise as the Alabama Swamp beltress The Witch. Sara Schoch stands out as Edward's lovelorn old school flame Jenny Hill, and Lee David Skunes is particularly funny and fine as the deep-voiced and unexpectedly erudite Karl the Giant. Even young Jackson Daley has his moments as the prematurely pragmatic boyhood Will. He draws laughs easily as he dismisses his father Edward's fantastic tales with natural comic timing.

The six-piece band under Stern's direction brings a down-home bluegrass feel to some numbers while lending a child-like nursery rhyme vibe to others. The sextet performs with a great deal of brio and adds a welcome zest to the production.

Jenna McFarland Lord's flexible set design consists primarily of large flowing silk-like curtains that roll up and down and billow above and around a variety of portable set pieces. They work most effectively when conjuring the fantasy worlds that bloom from Edward's fertile mind. They serve as perfect backdrops for Karen Perlow's lighting and Seaghan McKay's projections, transforming into shimmering rivers, musky swamps, vivid circus tents and an abandoned community. The curtains are less effective, however, when shifting to more realistic settings. In young Will's bedroom and Edward's antiseptic hospital room they feel oddly claustrophobic, distracting from the action as they hang ominously overhead.

With BIG FISH director Paul Daigneault has once again succeeded in stripping away unnecessary Broadway trappings to expose the thrilling essence of an inspiring human story that beats powerfully underneath. He has delivered some immensely satisfying moments, despite August and Lippa's tendency to explain some of the morals of the story instead of letting them reveal themselves in due course. Still, BIG FISH is a whale of tale. With even more judicious rewrites and pruning, it may yet turn into a whale of a musical.

PHOTOS BY CRAIG BAILEY/PERSPECTIVE PHOTO: Lee David Skunes, Steven Goldstein, and the cast of BIG FISH; the cast of BIG FISH; Steven Goldstein and Jackson Daley; Aimee Doherty and Steven Goldstein; Sam Simakh; the cast of BIG FISH



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From This Author Jan Nargi