Review: Arts in Motion's Production of BIG FISH at the IPAC

So much heart and talent!

By: May. 17, 2024
Review: Arts in Motion's Production of BIG FISH at the IPAC
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BIG FISH is perhaps the ultimate Father’s Day musical, which is why I found it so ironic that I saw the Arts in Motion production of it the day before Mother’s Day. 

This was a special show, which ended its run last Saturday and which I was fortunate enough to see (and, like so many other audience members, to start having my tear ducts well-up during it).  It’s a musical that’s all heart, and a heart that is worn boldly on its sleeve.  It may not be perfect (no show featuring Auburn University could ever be perfect to this Crimson Tide alum), and it may not contain the most memorable songs and storyline for my tastes.  But it’s one of those shows whose imperfections I embrace and whose meaning will no doubt stay with me for a very long time.

BIG FISH, based on the Tim Burton film which in turn had been based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, centers around the relationship between Edward Bloom and his son, Will.  Throughout Will’s life, Edward had told a myriad of tall tales about witches, giants and mermaids, and his son just wishes he had more time for him.  Edward is a salesman who, like Willy Loman (who had son troubles of his own), is facing death, and his son soon learns there is more to dad than those wild stories that he had spun. Such a plotline wouldn’t seem like an ideal source for a musical, but don’t tell the great Andrew Lippa, who wrote the music and lyrics, and John August, who wrote the musical’s book. 

BIG FISH ran a mere three months on Broadway (it opened in October 2013, closed in December that same year), so immediately it enters the Land of Cult Musicals. That it wasn’t nominated for any Tony awards, that it was seemingly shoved aside, adds notches to its cult status.  This is the type of show that we find ourselves protecting, that has a small but vocal audience who sings its praises all too often.  Two of those in the proud BIG FISH cult--director Mitchell Gonzalez and his wife, music director Brooke Gonzalez--are probably two of the more outspoken BIG FISH cheerleaders.  So, what better collection of artists to perform this true labor of love than Arts in Motion, which utilized the beautiful IPAC stage in Wesley Chapel so well.

You can tell from every child on that stage (almost three dozen in total from ages six to eighteen), to every moment of every song, that the guiding principle behind it all was love.  On the stage, in the cast and crew, in the story itself, and ultimately in the audience: Pure love.

Leading the way  was Kevin Grumbley, who absolutely embraces the wild exuberance of the father, Edward.  (Tristan Haberland played the part at other performances.)  There’s a reason the character’s last name is Bloom--like the daffodils his wife cherishes, he blooms his positivity and creativity wherever he goes.  And Mr. Grumbley nails this enthusiasm, this likability and charisma that Edward must have.  It’s a bravura turn.  My only qualm is that, this being played by a teenager, I never bought into him being in his sixties; I always felt that Edward was a very young father when he died (yes, sixty is too young to die, but imagine believing he was in his thirties).  This is more of an issue of it being a high school student in the part instead of a seasoned soul like Norbert Leo Butz, who originated the role of Edward on Broadway. But Mr. Grumbley is a force of nature in the role, especially in such songs as “Be a Hero” and “Fight the Dragons.”  He has a youthful spirit that is invigorating and lights up the stage; he’s so enthusiastic, in fact, that you feel that he could revive the dead. 

As his son, Will, Reagan Ricardo is a revelation and my choice for best in the cast.  Mr. Ricardo is only seventeen years old and yet he has it all: Talent in both acting and singing, laser focus, true heart, and the ability to own the stage.  We feel for him in such songs as “Stranger” (“My father is a stranger I know very well…”).   Astounding work.

Harley White as Sandra is also incredibly strong.

Equally fine is Hailey Garcia as The Witch.  Resembling a young Mila Kunis, she has a make-you-jump-out-of-your-seat singing voice, wall-shaking and beautiful.  Those incredible pipes, as showcased in her big song early in Act 1, and the high notes that she hit garnered loud applause.  

Everything comes together in this show--choreography (by Michael Anthony D’Aquino), singing (music direction by the aforementioned Ms. Gonzalez), and the energetic young cast.  There’s a magical feeling to it, with giants on stilts and bicycles riding by, that puts a smile on your face no matter what mood you may have previously been in. The dancing is lively and fun, and the singing is out of this world, with some terrific harmonies. 

The ensemble and secondary characters must be spotlighted here, because they are hands down the heart of the show.  They help catapult the story to life, especially in songs like “Red, White and True.”  These talented youths bode well for the future generations and the future of musical theatre.  They include: Samantha Border, Carly Bowling, Addelyn Butterfield, Jaiden Delgado, Eden Drovandi, Vayda Drovandi, Keeley Elliottt, Kendall Grumbley, Aleeya Guynn, Tristan Haberland, Rowan Heyman, Gavin Hinton, Sarah Hoerbelt, Larkin Mainwaring, Juleah Miller, Magnolia Moore, Annilyse Norland, Jaiden Pauliot, Kenzie Pavone, Kolten Quilian, Korban Quillian, Ruthie Quillian, Raphaela Ricardo, Rhys Ricardo, Rio Ricardo, Ruby Ricardo, Elisa Peter Richmond, Violet Cincinatti Ruck, Jayla Saxton, Lennon Schaeffer, Orrin Schaeffer, Gabriel Shamlen, Lila Simon, Livi Simon, Leilani Soto, Zayden Soto, and Karis Williams.  Each one of these vibrant young souls made my day as they performed their hearts out. 

Director Mitchell Gonzalez matches the heart of the show with his own heart.  He does the near-impossible here: He lets his actors take their time where silence carries just as much power as words or lyrics. Sometimes the stage is bare, as we wait for an actor to enter.  Oftentimes this would drive me crazy--where are the actors???--but not here.  The show is leisurely-paced like a breezy afternoon in Alabama…but it’s never boring.  

The ending of BIG FISH reminded me of the ending of Fellini’s circus-themed 8-1/2 or even All That Jazz, where the lead character meets all the folks from his past.  Mr. Bloom’s world has finally come together, and it’s astonishingly powerful, especially when brought to life by a cast so young but so caring.

Is this Mitchell Gonzalez’s best work?  Of the shows I’ve seen him direct, it’s certainly way up there.  But I enjoyed his production of 13: The Musical equally; then again, I also felt the Jason Robert Brown songs were better and more memorable.  But BIG FISH is a more difficult show to conted with, and it certainly launches Mr. Gonzalez to the next level of directors. 

After the show, I started recalling my own father, who is still alive at 94.  I also remembered years ago when I saw a play--August Wilson’s Jitney--that has an ultra-dramatic scene between a father and his son at the end of Act1.  Someone at intermission saw how affected I was by the show and the performance, and asked if I was okay.  “Of course,” I said. 

The man nodded in understanding.  “So…you’re a father?” 

“No,” I answered.  “But I am a son.”

BIG FISH gives you the same feels, the same power.  It’s an ode to all the fathers and sons out there who are struggling to communicate, to understand each other.  It’s a subject matter perfect for Father’s Day…but then again, as BIG FISH lovingly teaches us, shouldn’t every day be Father’s Day?


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