In my family, my father was the Big Fish: a teller of tall tales and elaborate shaggy dog stories. Most families have someone like him: someone for whom life must be larger, greater, more colorful than the workaday humdrum it mostly turns out to be. In Big Fish, traveling salesman Edward Bloom is that storyteller- yet his son Will, instead of being entranced by the mythmaking, grows up to be disappointed, thinking that his father tells him nothing real about himself. In doing so, he misses the point of his father’s stories: that everyone is the hero of his own life.
Big Fish, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the subsequent movie by John August was translated to the stage as a Broadway musical in 2013 and closed after fewer than 100 performances.
And there’s the problem, really: for those of us familiar with the movie, the Broadway incarnation is a decidedly smaller fish. Though the book was written by John August, the original screenwriter, with music and lyrics by Broadway composer Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party), it’s a dumbed-down version of the original film. Think seventh-grade book reports on the Gettysburg Address: you get the idea, but not the stirring heroism. The magic of Big Fish has been reduced to mere plotline, and the music and lyrics are so uninspired and cliched as to be instantly forgettable.
Let’s start with the best things about the production: kudos go to the casting of Dan Van Why as Edward Bloom. He’s superb- a bit young for the part, perhaps, but he is so instantly likable and electric on stage that it little matters. There’s a challenge with casting this part: Edward is supposed to morph from young teenager to dying old man, with little time built in for makeup or even costume changes, so it’s all on the actor. Mr Van Why makes the jump, and we’re mostly with him for the ride.
Mr Van Why’s got a contender for most watchable actor in Grant Saunders as Karl the Giant. Mr Saunders isn’t just a tall guy (around 6’8″). He’s a big, floppy comic with talent and timing who can act, dance and sing – where again will you find someone so perfect for this difficult role? The best laughs of the evening come when Edward and Karl are on stage together.
Other roles are less well cast. Ricky Drummond, who plays Edward’s son Will, can sing beautifully, but he appears to be nearly the same age as Van Why, and it makes for a visual of brothers rather than father and son. Since the six member ensemble plays multiple parts, it’s pretty easy to have no real idea who someone is supposed to be. That could have been alleviated by costuming, but the simple costumes by Debra Kim Sivigny are disappointing, and to add to that the wigs by Makeup Designer Craig Miller are, I’m sorry, just dreadful.
closes September 9, 2017
Details and tickets
The creative set designed by Matthew Keenan for Keegan’s relatively small stage, is wonderful: gauzy material that doubles as wings for entrances and exits, lend an otherworldly air, while the whole back wall is a projection screen. Projection design by Patrick Lord is lovely, with lots of animated touches such as flowers floating down the river and a stand of stately and slightly spooky trees. Sound by Sound Designer Tony Angelini is also quite well done, with quiet references to rivers and water throughout the play. And the circus scene is quite clever- I won’t spoil it by telling you too much!
As mentioned before, Keegan’s stage has limited space, but the endlessly inventive choreography by Rachel Leigh Dolan is topnotch. Not everyone in the cast is a dancer by nature, but Dolan knows wisely showcased triple threats such as Rick Westercamp – and made the remaining folks onstage look like pros.
Few of the songs reach the level of “I Don’t Need A Roof,” sung movingly by Eleanor Todd as Sandra Bloom. And it should be mentioned that there are some fine singing voices in this cast, and not all of them from the principals, either.
Though it’s an imperfect musical, I suspect Keegan chose Big Fish for a very good reason: it’s not West Side Story, or Grease, or any one of a hundred-and-one other finely written but overdone musicals. Folks will come to see this- as well they should- for overall it’s a good production, if a good production of an admittedly middling musical.
Yet despite its flaws, the show is about something important. At its heart, Big Fish is about what makes a small life large despite outward appearances. Edward Bloom, at first glance just a traveling salesman, is indeed the hero of his own life, and at the end, a hero to his son Will as well.
Big Fish . Book by John August . Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa . Directed by Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith Featuring Dan Van Why, Ricky Drummond, Eleanor J. Todd, Allie O’Donnell, Katie McManus, Patrick M. Doneghy, Grant Saunders, Emily Madde, Courtney Moran, Eitan Mazia, Rick Westerkamp, Molly Rumberger, Erik Peyton, Sebastian Salmi, Dani Ebbin, and Harrison Smith . Music Direction: Jake Null . Scenic Design: Matthew Keenan . Choreography: Rachel Leigh Dolan . Lighting Design: Allan Weeks . Costume Design: Debra Kim Sivigny . Sound Design: Tony Angelini . Projection Design: Patrick Lord . Hair and Makeup Design: Craig Miller . Properties: Cindy Jacobs . Stage Manager: Alexis J. Hartwick . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.