BWW Reviews: West Coast Premiere BIG FISH Reels Us In Big Time
Based on Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel and Tim Burton's 2003 film of the same name, Big Fish, with a few minor changes in plot, becomes quite an imaginative musical...with Andrew Lippa composer of some of the best songs written for a Broadway show in a long time. So, it is hard to imagine why its Broadway run ended after a mere three months. Now in its West Coast premiere, Big Fish comes to MTW with a glorious cast directed by Larry Carpenter and choreographed by Peggy Hickey with vibrant sets and costumes from the original New York production. It's a real charmer and another big win for MTW.
The life account of Edward Bloom (Jeff Skowron), who hails from the tiny town of Ashton, Alabama, is told in two meshed storylines. It starts in the present with Edward at age 60 when his son Will (Andrew Huber) is about to marry Josephine (Kristina Miller), and then flashes back 30 years to the time when Will was a boy (Jude Mason) and dad Edward, a traveling salesman, was on the road more than at home. Wife Sandra (Rebecca Johnson) was there for Will, but Edward only popped in occasionally when he returned from his trips. At the core of the whole story is Will's inability to understand his father, who tells tales of mythical proportions (the subtitle of the novel) about witches, mermaids, giants and fantastical events...making Will question Edward's sense of truth and his overall integrity as a husband/father. When he uncovers a deed on a house in Ashton signed by Edward and his teenage sweetheart Jenny Hill (Michelle Loucadoux), Will thinks his dad is having an affair. Edward is dying of cancer and doesn't tell his son until it becomes impossible to hide the facts. In an earnest effort to connect to his father before he dies...and more urgently to uncover the truth about his so-called 'secret' life, Will sets out on a journey of discovery that ends up bringing him much closer to his father than he ever dreamed.
Edward Bloom is indeed a dreamer. Throughout the show, we see his fantasies take shape in the form of big musical numbers that involve 'stomping to catch fish', joining a circus, befriending a gentle giant Karl (Timothy Hughes) whose plight is acceptance in a hostile world, taking part in a cinematic western shootout, even envisioning a panoramic variety show to entertain troops during wartime...which add a lot of lively action and rivet audience attention from start to finish. Hickey does splendid work with choreography, and director Carpenter stages the piece fully, keeping the pacing up and bright.
The entire ensemble are divine with Skowron adding another memorable performance to his versatile repertoire. Making Edward a bewildered sort of Will Rogers, who may not be the greatest parent in the world but a surefire storyteller of epic proportions, Skowron is amazingly amusing and full of tomfoolery yet makes his Edward grounded and convincingly human. Johnson brings warmth and a touch of elegance to the caring and supportive Sandra. Huber also plays his role with complete honesty as the befuddled Will who cannot make sense out of his father's eccentric ways. His transition to picking up Edward's uncanny brilliance with storytelling in the end is touching and nicely subtle. Hughes is terrific as Karl, the out.of.place giant who learns to experience wealth, success and happiness because of Edward's encouragement. Mason steals scenes as little Will and Miller does her best with the thankless role of Will's bride. Molly Garner makes a deliciously appealing Witch and Zachary Ford is fun to watch as always as Edward's bull-headed opponent since childhood, Don Price. Praise to the entire ensemble for some wonderful triple threat singing, dancing and acting.
For me what makes this musical rise above the norm is Andrew Lippa's sensational score. Most contemporary musicals have mediocre music but this one is melodic and alive with some pretty memorable tunes like "Be the Hero", "Time Stops", "Red, White and True", "Fight the Dragons", "Daffodils", and the simply gorgeous "I Don't Need a Roof".
I never saw the film, but I can envision Tim Burton having a field day with this uplifting tale. Its eccentricities and colorful characters as in Edward Scissorhands are right up his alley. But, what makes me most happy is that Lippa and bookwriter John August, with an unusual eye for minute detail, turned it into a musical for the stage. Edward Bloom's tremendous power of imagination creates so much optimism for living one's life to the fullest, richest capacity. To quote him, "it feeds the soul". And with MTW's stellar rendering of the heartfelt Big Fish, you will leave the theatre refreshed... and ready to take on the world.