Theater at the Center's BIG FISH: an Engagingly Theatrical Multi-Course Meal
As yet another sign of the Chicago area's dominance in the world of the American musical theater, I need only point to the fact that it is undoubtedly the only market that has hosted three different productions of the Andrew Lippa musical "Big Fish," at three different tiers of the industry and three different geographical locations. Chicago hosted the show's pre-Broadway tryout in the spring of 2013, starring two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz and Tony nominees Bobby Steggert and Kate Baldwin, at the Oriental Theatre in the Loop. In the summer of 2014, the intrepid Jedlicka Performing Arts Center presented the show in a non-Equity production in west suburban Cicero. And now, in an Equity production, Munster, Indiana's Theater at the Center is presenting the show through June 7, 2015. This past Sunday night was the gala opening performance.
I sat down with the show's writers for an interview in March of 2013, and I felt the passion they have for the original 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and for the Tim Burton film version, released in 2003 with a big-name cast. Screenwriter John August is the show's bookwriter, and he and Lippa reportedly changed the show quite a bit between its Chicago tryout and its three-month run on Broadway in the fall of 2013. (And they convened in Boston this spring to put a "scaled-down" version into place, I understand.) Well, Theater at the Center's version is the Broadway script and score, albeit with a smaller orchestra (five players, conducted by musical director William Underwood). And there are 24 actors in the cast, so this is no small-scale production. As directed by the legendary William Pullinsi, it is much better at storytelling than Susan Stroman's original staging (with 27 actors) is reported to have been, even at New York's Neil Simon Theatre.
It's tricky material, true. Storytelling is inextricably tied to the structure of the piece, as Alabama resident Edward Bloom is a HUGE storyteller, much to the annoyance of his son, Will. And as Will grows up, he has a nagging feeling that he doesn't really know who his father is, or what his father's life has really been like. Can you trust a father who insists to his adult son that he had his fortune told by a witch, that he once kissed a mermaid and gave her legs, and that his business associates have included a carnival barker in a top hat and a giant named Karl? There's more "I caught a fish THIS BIG" tales than just those, and they all get repeated, rehashed and reheated. And counted!
But does this show exist just for fantasy "set pieces," musical sequences that remind me of the way Kurt Weill's songs structured his landmark "Lady in the Dark," or the way Kander and Ebb's songs were used in "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman?" No, there is much, much more. It's about the complicated, hard to experience and even harder to watch relationship between fathers and sons, especially later in life. And this relationship, in this production, feels real, painful and very high stakes. The men in your life need to see this.
One problem with the piece, though, and why the original Broadway production had "tryout trouble," is that the lead character, Edward, is rarely offstage, and yet the show is really about his son's search for the truth. Also, the shifts in time that occur are numerous and sudden, as are the changes of location and the changes from reality to storytelling and back. Pullinsi's new production can't solve the first problem, but it does make the father-son relationship so central to the show that I can't even think of another Broadway musical that is about fathers and sons to the same degree. (The song "Fathers and Songs," from "Working," isn't the whole show, by a long shot.)
Pullinsi has, however, solved most of the other structural problems. It is always clear in TATC's "Big Fish" who is telling a story, and to whom, and when, and why. And the stories are delightful, even as they are puzzling as regards their deeper import. With a slow start for a lot of exposition, this production picks up steam in a major way, due to the variety of the stories, the core relationship of father and son, and even the jumps in time and place. It's exciting in its theatricality. And by the end, many folks in the audience were in tears on Sunday, and not just the men. (Remember, too, that I saw the show on Mother's Day!) It's a success in the ultimate meaning department, no question.
As Edward, Chicago actor Stef Tovar is thoroughly grounded, committed and energized, working as hard as his character ever did to entertain as well as to build a life for himself and his loved ones. If his singing voice showed a little tiredness toward the end of the first act on Sunday, that's more than forgiven. Age came and went in a flash, and there was never a hint of smirk or sarcasm during the tale telling. A towering performance, indeed. A hard worker with a heart! Can this guy be MY dad, please?
As Will, Nathan Gardner stays doggedly after the truth, loving his dad even while resenting him deeply for seeming to hide his true self from his only progeny. And frankly, Gardner's remarkable singing voice makes his big ballad, "Stranger," seem a better song than it really is. His younger self, Young Will, is played by Nate Becker, a sixth grader with a long resume; he may be the most truthful young actor I've seen in a long while.
Will's mother, and Edward's wife and joy in life, is Sandra, played by one of our very best singing actresses, Colette Todd. If her role seems a tad underwritten, it may be because no amount of saying "I know, but I love him anyway" would be enough, and what else can she say? But Todd is a winning, welcome presence, and thoroughly believable. Her second act solo, "I Don't Need a Roof," could be transplanted to Broadway or to any theater in the country just as it is right now, so powerful, so well sung it is, so direct and expressive. Her voice made Barry G. Funderburg's expert and evocative sound design come alive in a way I hadn't noticed before in the show. Maybe she inspires the theater's very wiring!
The chief supporting players here are superbly cast by Pullinsi: the big presence and voice of the sui generis Bethany Thomas as The Witch, the bluster and hucksterism of Norm Boucher as Amos Calloway, and the lumbering physicality and enigmatic shyness of John Stemberg as Karl, the giant. The lovely Callie Johnson is kind of wasted as Josephine, Will's wife, but only because I wanted her to do more, but that would have been wrong. Ann Delaney makes a wonderful Mermaid, and Rachel Sparrow is the mysterious Jenny Hill, the key to unraveling the mystery of what makes Edward Bloom tick.
The singing and dancing ensemble is as hardworking and talented as any you'll find on a local stage, game at any style of showbiz that's tossed their way by Fortunato's varied choreography. The scene design by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod proves more flexible than I first thought, and forces the action of this domestic-drama-with-head-trips right into the laps of the audience. Long's Broadway costumes are lovely, and occasionally genius. And the lighting of Guy Rhodes always led my eye in the right direction, so important in this particular story.
"Big Fish" is not an undiscovered masterpiece, but it is a very good musical, indeed, and one which may play better in America's heartland than it did in Times Square. In Northwest Indiana, it plays very, very well. This production is clear, creative and fun, and yet when the chips are down, it is very moving and even revelatory. Broadway tunesmiths and bookwriters have written about women and the men who love them for many decades now. But have they ever written a musical show that gives theater artists in mid-America the opportunity to dig deeply into how men behave with their sons, or how sons come to terms with reality of their fathers' lives? I don't think so. And to present this material in this inventive and engaging way makes TATC's "Big Fish" an early Father's Day gift that deserves to be appreciated. Men and their metaphors. Head on over there, won't you? Root for Will to figure out his dad. You'll be so glad you did.
"BIG FISH" runs at the Theater at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road in Munster, Indiana, from May 7 through June 7, 2015, directed by William Pullinsi, choreographed by Linda Fortunato and featuring the original Broadway costumes designed by William Ivey Long. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays. Individual ticket prices range from $40 - $44. To purchase tickets call the Box Office at 219.836.3255 or Tickets.com at 800.511.1552, For more information, visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com.
Photos courtesy of Theatre at the Center