Lipsomb University Theatre's Emotional and Whimsical BIG FISH THE MUSICAL

Kari Smith Directs Capable, Passionate Cast Led by Nate Mann and Abi Williams

By: Nov. 05, 2023
Lipsomb University Theatre's Emotional and Whimsical BIG FISH THE MUSICAL

On its surface, there is so much about which to alternately fall in love with/wonder quizzically about in Big Fish, the musical with book by John August (based on his screenplay for the 2003 film version) and a score by Andrew Lippa, that there’s no wonder the show had trouble finding its audience on Broadway but now has proven tremendously popular among theaters all over the country.

Lipsomb University Theatre's Emotional and Whimsical BIG FISH THE MUSICAL
Nate Mann and Abi Williams

Presented now in a sumptuous, beautifully designed and impressively directed and choreographed production from Nashville’s Lipscomb University Theatre, Big Fish remains both an emotionally charged tale of an absentee father and his resentful son attempting rapprochement before it’s too late or, alternately, “a whimsical tale of a man dying of cancer,” which is how I’ve described it more than once since seeing it for the first time on opening night. But due to the fact that I was forced to fight back the ugly cry during multiple scenes on its first night, I’ll align myself with the school of thought that Big Fish is warmly sentimental and quintessentially Southern tale of a loving family who don’t always get along, but who remain devoted to one another despite their misgivings and misperceptions.

Kari Smith’s confident direction of the musical – brought so vividly to life through her exceptional choreography (something we’ve come to expect from LUT musicals over the years and she is now joined by students Mary Humphrey and Annie McMurrian in creating exhilarating dances for Big Fish) and her splendid casting of the leading roles – ensures that the stories of Alabama’s Bloom family are told eloquently and expressively via the performances of her promising young actors who deliver Lippa’s genre-spanning score with an ease and maturity that succeeds beautifully, thanks to Christopher Bailey’s musical direction. However, I can’t help but wish a live orchestra was on-hand to perform Lippa’s score; recorded tracks lack the sense of immediacy and the creative electricity that is provided by live musicians.

Lipsomb University Theatre's Emotional and Whimsical BIG FISH THE MUSICAL
Ethan Williams and Nate Mann

As is always the case with Lipscomb University Theatre, he production’s visual aesthetic is gorgeous, with dazzling scenic design by Andy Bleiler, colorful costume design by June Kingsbury and the stunning illumination of Stephen Moss’ lighting design. Jacob Allen provides the production’s commendable sound design.

August’s book for the musical is based, as his screenplay was, on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace (Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions) that celebrates family and the particularly Southern predilection for telling tall tales, spinning yarns and relating legends that oftentimes defy logic and challenge conventional beliefs. In fact, protagonist Edward Bloom’s stories are so overblown and ostentatious – his character is so much larger than life itself – that we cannot help but wonder why musical theater wasn’t the first stop on this creative journey? For there is no place better than musical theater for the artistic creation of the immense sense of wonder for those moments in life, real or imagined, that may only be expressed through song and dance. Thus, the stories of Edward Bloom’s life are perfectly scaled for the possibilities and grandeur of musical theater.

Big Fish does not follow a linear time frame, instead  show’s various scenes following w a meandering path through the play’s action like so many memories of a lifetime. Instead of leading to confusion, this method of storytelling reinforces the show’s themes of family devotion, all-encompassing love and the realization that all people have stories to tell – the importance or stature of which only come from the manner in which those tales are told (it’s all in the delivery) in the future even as they evolve in and from the present.

Lipsomb University Theatre's Emotional and Whimsical BIG FISH THE MUSICAL
Tea Doherty

Experiencing Big Fish from a younger perspective, flush with the glow of youth and the certainty of one’s own immortality, the appreciation of its larger-than-life attributes are effectively conveyed – the grandiosity of its tall tales delighting and entertaining you. Only after some time, does Big Fish take on a far different countenance or import, the impact of which won’t be felt until you’re much further along on your own life’s journey.

Conversely, the impact of Big Fish, I suppose, hits differently when one is older and in a different season of one’s own life, when the realization that you’ve experienced far more of life than you are likely to in the coming years may be sobering, at best, and harrowing, at worst.

My advice? Allow yourself to become immersed in the beauty and magic of live theater and to be transported to a make-believe world in which some things may actually be true and others far-fetched and perhaps unattainable. Let the music, the characters and their stories into your heart and live in the moment. If later, you decide to incorporate some of Edward Bloom’s tall tales into the retelling of your own life’s happenings, chances are no one will notice.

There is so much to love about Lipscomb University Theatre and Kari Smith’s version of Big Fish, not the least of which is her endearingly capable and inspiringly passionate young actors.

Lipsomb University Theatre's Emotional and Whimsical BIG FISH THE MUSICAL
Abi Williams, Nate Mann and company

Nate Mann’s commanding stage presence may seem suprising from an actor so young, but watching him lead the production as Edward Bloom through two hours-plus of well-paced onstage action is enough to convince me he’s ready to take on any role. Handsome, charming and focused, he ably makes his character’s arc from high school athlete in smalltown Alabama to respected and beloved family man/traveling salesman an authentic and completely believable one. His show-opening “Be The Hero” establishes his mark on the proceedings which follow, while his “Time Stops” reveals his romantic side, which is amped up for the Act One closer “Daffodills” that features Edward with his beloved Sandra.

Mann is paired with the exquisitely gifted – and equally commanding – Abi Williams as Sandra Bloom, the love of his life, who delivers a performance that would feel arch and phony is lesser hands. However, Williams exudes confidence, style and aplomb, which coupled with her indefinable onstage presence that is thoroughly captivating. Furthermore, she shows off her wide-ranging talents in some of the best musical moments from Lippa’s score, including “Little Lamb from Alabama,” “Two Men in My Life,” “Red, White and True” and “I Don’t Need a Roof” (which is one of those especially poignant moments during which you may lose your composure).

Lipsomb University Theatre's Emotional and Whimsical BIG FISH THE MUSICAL
Nate Mann and David Long III

David Long III is committed to this role of the couple’s son Will Bloom, who is caught off-guard by his father’s medical prognosis and struggles to determine what, if anything, is genuine in the fanciful stories he has been told since childhood. Long’s voice is particularly impressive in “Stranger” and although his skepticism seems wrong-headed to audience members of a certain age, his questioning nature seems genetic. Meghan Wombles, a favorite among Lipscomb musical theatre stars, once again shines onstage, cast as the warm and loving Josephine, Will’s wife, whose entry into the family helps set the reconciliation between father and son on its course.

Among the large ensemble of actors who bring the show to life with such energy and commitment, Jackson Thomas-Clark Martin as Karl, Edward’s purported best friend, is at once heartbreaking and entertaining – described as a giant, he fills the expansive Collins Alumni Auditorium stage with his finely crafted performance that defines the character’s importance in the elder Bloom’s life, while delivering the simple line of “I’m Karl,” late in Act Two that made me stifle sobs (and which should have ended the show, so far as I’m concerned, but that’s grist for another story). Cleo Graham is ideally cast as Jenny Hill, the blondest cheerleader in Edward Bloom’s hometown of Ashton, Alabama, and skillfully plays the role with tremendous charm and a sense of maturity that deepens the emotional gravitas of the character.

Lipsomb University Theatre's Emotional and Whimsical BIG FISH THE MUSICAL

As circus owner Amos Calloway, Connor Adair, a stalwart company member of so many outstanding LUT productions, is given a role equal to his scene-stealing talents and he seizes the opportunity to create a memorable portrayal.

Witchy and otherworldly, while possessing a gorgeous voice and moving like a professional dancer, Tea Doherty is terrific as The Witch, while James Wier is wonderfully arrogant as Don Price, Edward’s hometown nemesis. Ava Sin threatens to steal every scene, from Ashton to Auburn and back again, as Don’s toady Zacky, and Andrea Perez-Hernandez (as the Mayor), Marian Claire Barber (as Dr. Bennett) and Annie McMurrian (as the Mermaid – from this cast list, it’s easy to derive why Will might find Edward’s stories hard to swallow as an adult) all have their justifiable moments in the spotlight. Bowen Sellers, as Red Fang; Jonah Smith, as the General; and Mary Humphrey and Olivia Eley as Alabama Lambs, are also worthy of note among the huge cast.

Big Fish, The Musical. 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 and choreographed by Kari Smith. Musical direction by Christopher Bailey. Produced by Beki Baker. Co-directed by Garner Harsh. Assistant choreographers Mary Humphrey and Annie McMurrian. Stage managed by Ash Barrett, Sofia Hernandez-Morales, Maegan Kirland and Kellin Ferell. Presented by Lipscomb University Theatre at Collins Alumni Auditorium, Nashville. Through November 12. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

Photos by Sarah H. Johnson

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