Review: YAA's BIG FISH at Strathmore

A night to remember for the next generation of performers

By: Mar. 25, 2024
Review: YAA's BIG FISH at Strathmore
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At first glance, perhaps 2013’s Big Fish (music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa with a book by John August) isn’t wholly suited for youth theater. Besides its challenging score, its two main characters are a sixty-year-old man and his adult son, and its themes of fatherhood and mortality skew older in relevance. It’s a pleasure then to say that on March 23rd, 2024, the very young cast, ensemble, and musicians of Young Artists of America (YAA) proved not only fit for the challenge, but able to flourish within it, delivering a mature and heartfelt performance far beyond their years.

Big Fish, based on a 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace later adapted into a 2003 film helmed by Tim Burton, follows the dual narratives of the heroic, fantastical adventures of Edward Bloom (Seger Ott-Rudolph), and his skeptical son Will (Luka van Herksen), who struggles to reconcile these tall tales with his own experiences of his father as a frequently absent and disappointing presence in his life.

As Edward weaves his mythic stories, which his son attempts to collate and fact-check, we are introduced to a series of bigger-than-life characters including a witch who tells a young Edward how he will die (Grace Pressley), an intellectually gifted giant (Demetrius Hunter), and a circus ringmaster who’s secretly a werewolf (Ryan Robbins). There are also a few more down-to-earth throughlines to Edward’s epic odyssey, such as childhood rival Don Price (Jesse Kliman) and high school sweetheart Jenny Hill (Veronica Romero).

Bigger, though, than all the fabulous scrapes involving fairytale creatures and implausible wartime battles is the story of how Edward falls in love at first sight with Sandra (Erin Leberknight) and then spends years pursuing her, eventually winning her hand in marriage.

As for Will, the one-two punch of becoming a father himself and watching Edward succumbing to illness softens his tough shell. Gradually coming to understand the ways in which Edward’s stories have guided and inspired him through life, he gradually steps into his father’s shoes, first by telling the story of how Edward dies, and then by immortalizing his father in the stories he tells his own son.

YAA billed Big Fish as a “symphonic world premiere” as Larry Hochman’s original Broadway orchestrations have been transformed into a new luscious orchestral arrangement by composer Ryan Fielding Garrett. This fresh take on Lippa’s score is fuller and bolder, creating more room for the dozens of high schoolers in the orchestral program (conducted by music director Kristofer Sanz and supported by a few guest artists) to participate. While the orchestra occasionally overpowered the young singers and some of the more intimate folksiness of Hochman’s orchestrations has been lost, the brilliance and talent on display was immeasurable; judging only from the sound it was hard to imagine that the majority of players were students in grades 9 through 12.

Since 2011, YAA has been running orchestral and musical theater training programs for students in elementary school up through to high school and college. This one-night only performance of Big Fish pulled together over 150 students from three different programs, and significant effort has clearly gone into making this production a memorable and rewarding one for all those involved.

Taking place at the beautiful Music Center at Strathmore, a performance hall capable of seating 1,976, the performance (directed by Carole Graham Lehan and choreographed by Alyxzandra Blanch) fell somewhere between a concert and fully staged production. The complex and eclectic settings of the show were convincingly brought to life inside the music venue with lights (Lyle Jaeger) doing most of the heaviest lifting, as well as simple and effective prop design (Amy Kellett.) Video projections (Dominic Grijalva) helped a bit with scene transitions but were visually uneven and included some anachronisms that muddied the sense of time and place.

Most impressive about the whole affair was the young cast. From the main characters through to the large ensemble, everyone not only sang beautifully but were seemingly entirely undaunted to be front and center in such an imposing venue. Pressley, Hunter, Robbins, Kliman and Romero all handled their spotlight moments with confidence and ease – extra credit to Hunter who navigated the entire night on stilts.

Van Herksen brought depth and assured acting chops to the complicated role of Will Bloom, while Leberknight’s voice was stunningly beautiful. At the center of the spectacle was Ott-Rudolph, who proved himself to be a commanding leading man capable of impeccable comic timing and delicate dramatic moments, all while doing justice to a seemingly unending series of virtuosic numbers. All three shone brightly throughout and would not have felt at all out of place in a professional production.

Fittingly, Lippa and August were in attendance, not only to cheer on this next generation of musical theater artists but also to impart wisdom similarly to how Edward Bloom teaches and inspires his son. Speaking at the end of the night, Lippa spoke passionately about his own formative experiences in musical theater as a child, and the important role performing these stories has in guiding and preparing us for the future.

In a way Big Fish is actually the perfect musical for youth theater. This moving show about what we pass on to our children and what they pass on to theirs has come full circle, with the children themselves taking on that mantle and delivering the story back to us. As Edward tells his son, “For everybody knows that’s how the story goes / To turn each boy into a bigger man / So I’ll fight the dragons ‘til you can.”

To learn more about YAA’s fall, spring and summer programming, visit their website at www.yaa.org.




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