Michael L. Quintos
- Associate Los Angeles Theatre Critic
An endearing musical with an even more endearing story, “BIG FISH” is a winsome stage production that is currently making its Orange County regional debut at Anaheim's Chance Theater through July 29, 2018 helmed by its own resident executive artistic director Oanh Nguyen.
Filled with hard-to-believe, imaginative tales that skew more wonderful rather than odd, this cute, warm hug of a musical is based on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace that also inspired a 2003 big-screen adaptation directed by Tim Burton. The musical—which debuted on Broadway in 2013—features Southern-fried music and lyrics from Andrew Lippa and a book by John August, who also wrote the screenplay to the film adaptation.
For Chance Theater's scaled-down, small space iteration, Nguyen has fashioned a relatively appealing production that is generous with heart and admirable in spirit.
Right away, “BIG FISH” presents itself with the kind of whimsical wonder and appealing charm that makes audiences curiously attentive to its story, which centers on the uneasy relationship between Edward Bloom (Jeff Lowe) and his only son Will (played as an adult by Jared Price and as a child by Jason Brewer).
All throughout Will's childhood, Will didn't feel as much of a closeness to his father as probably most of his peers, considering his father was often absent from their home in Alabama—the unfortunate side-effect of being constantly on-the-road as a traveling salesman. But on the rare occasion when Edward is finally back home, he is enthusiastically dispensing stories from the road, peppered with lots of outrageous, fantasy-like details that defy any normal logic to the rapt attention of his young son.
Perhaps as an attempt to make himself look much more awesome to his young, impressionable kid, Edward spins countless too-strange-to-be-true tall tales about himself performing incredible feats of heroism and astounding derring-do… all while interacting with a giant or a mermaid here, or a werewolf or a witch there. And, yes, even gigantic big fish. For some reason, Edward Bloom's life is one amazing occurrence after another!
While his dad's yarns did fascinate young Will, part of him probably already had suspicions about the validity of such wild stories. This, alongside his father's constant absence, eventually increases his slight resentment and cautiousness towards his father, despite the fact that his doting mother, Edward's lovingly devoted wife Sandra (Laura M. Hathaway), continues to be madly in love with Edward and doesn't seem at all fazed by his wild, outlandish stories. Heck, she doesn't even dispute Edward's outlandish version of the story of their first meeting.
As expected—though Will truly adored his father as a child, looking up to him with a sense of wide-eyed wonder—the same can't be said for the adult Will, now a grown man about to get married—and, supposedly, about to become a father himself.
Adult Will grows up to become a journalist, the sort of person that prefers empirical evidence to support theories and stories. And as you may have gleaned already, Will still does not believe any of his father's tall tales from the past—and the annoyance and deep-seeded frustration that these stories have caused continue to color his view of his father in the most unflattering light. It doesn't help the situation that Edward insists his stories are not fiction, even years later in the present day.
When “BIG FISH” begins, we meet father and son by the banks of a river. As an aging Edward playfully skips rocks on the water, Will is trying to find the courage to ask his father sheepishly to, well, basically not give a toast at Will's wedding, worried that his father might cause some kind of scene that will embarrass him and his fiancé Josephine (Monika Peña).
In other words, Will wants his dad to cool it with his tall tales. Edward doesn't understand this requested censorship, but complies nonetheless—well, at least promises to do so.
Let's just say Edward just couldn't help himself and not only spills the beans on a piece of news during his toast that Will and Josephine wanted to keep hush on, but Edward also manages to let one of his tall tales spin out for all the guests to hear.
Understandably, Will is infuriated—which, as expected, widens the rift between himself and his dad.
But soon, this rocky father-son dynamic is put to the ultimate test.
Little does Will know that his father—SPOILER ALERT— has actually been living with cancer, which has recently gotten worse. The scene is a heartbreaking one: just as Will celebrates the notion that he is soon going to be a father himself for the first time, Edward back home is told by doctors that his cancer has strengthened and that he is terminally ill. Will learns the bad news from a frantic call from his mother.
The news sends both men spiraling.
Both soon gravitate towards different goals moving forward: for Will, it is to make sure his family's affairs are in order, and to, perhaps, learn more about his dad—the real Edward Bloom—in the process. For Edward, his goal before passing away is to make sure Will remembers every detail and nuance of his "stories" from top-to-bottom so that Will can share them with his own future children, and so that people won't ever forget who Edward Bloom was and what a full, heroic life he led…regardless of whether people want to believe the validity of his tales or not.
As one of many movies-turned-into-musicals, “BIG FISH” certainly ranks as one of the better, more engaging ones in recent memory. Though much of it also displays a through-line to traditional classic book musicals, “BIG FISH” juggles non-traditional parallel timelines by inserting flashbacks that also double as Edward's tall tales. There's a sort of plucky charm to them that keeps the show quite likable as it moves from one vignette to another. Even more compelling is that when the musical dives back into reality, where it's a contrasting necessary jolt. Lippa's music reflects these mood shifts quite well, populating the show with both fun country jamborees and lovely emotional ballads.
Though I'm not sure whether the musical truly finds a balance between fantasy and reality, I do feel there's enough here to merit an enjoyable, if acceptably imperfect theater piece with plenty more pluses than negatives.
Personally, the Chance Theater production of “BIG FISH” is the first time I am experiencing the show in a smaller footprint (I first saw a full-scale production many years ago that used the original Broadway sets and costumes). Probably my biggest concern going into this production was how Chance's much smaller space would be able to handle all the wildly fantastical elements of the musical.
I'm glad to report that none of the show's whimsy or fantasy fades much, mostly because of several factors that compensate for its smaller footprint. First, the delightfully animated projection designs by Nick Santiago—paired alongside Bradley Kaye's functional scenic design and Masako Tobaru's lighting designs—all came together to fill that smaller stage with the story's fantastical moments without the need for larger imposing sets or huge special effects. I am continuously impressed by how much this black-box theater could employ (and, wow, afford) such high-end digital projections so masterfully.
Also, the fantasy elements all came to life by sheer storytelling pluck and, okay, some really neat costumes from Bradley Lock and Puppet designs by Matthew Aldwin McGee and Aaron McGee.
Much of the joy of being immersed into the Edward's tall tales is to fill in a lot of the visual "blanks" or to, basically, let yourself be swept up in the theatrical magic and trickery, consciously ignoring some of the visible machinations utilized to make something come to life. Yes, the magically jumping fish from the river are thrown by cast members. And, yes, that "giant" has a visible dude controlling his arms and speaking for him—but who cares? Isn't that a neat way to introduce the giant into the story? My only gripe is the production's treatment of mermaids in the story—which feel a bit of a projected footnote here rather than a bigger deal than it should have been.
Additionally, the terrific orchestra—led by musical director Robyn Manion—performs Lippa's rousing score beautifully, while Kelly Todd's choreography made the cast move efficiently within the stage's tighter area.
The ensemble cast itself is an enthusiastic bunch, all of whom collectively bring a charismatic vibe to Chance Theater's production. Though things start a bit awkwardly in the first number during the show's opening night performance, the cast quickly gels into the show as it progresses.
As Edward Bloom, Lowe does an admirable job as the show's dominant center character, injecting the role with plenty of palpable charm and intensity. Price, as Edward's adult son Will, does a great job with an otherwise mostly underwritten character, but providing the audience with a terrific vocal in "Stranger." Together, Lowe and Price project a great dynamic as a father and son (respectively) at odds with one another.
Also worth noting: Hathaway as Sandra, a beam of light whenever she appears on the scene. Her vocal work in "I Don't Need A Roof" is a lovely moment of love, loss, reflection, and sincerity. John Carroll also provides great, hard-to-miss work as Karl the giant, and Mandy Foster is excellent as Jenny Hill, a (real) woman from Edward's past. Other standouts include the adorable Brewer as Young Will, Peña as Will's wife Josephine, Michael J. Isennock as circus ringmaster Amos Calloway, Rachel Oliveros Catalano as the future-seeing Witch, and Matt Bolden as Edward's longtime nemesis, campus hottie Don Price.
Heartwarming and quite appealing, Chance Theater's “BIG FISH” may dazzle with its fantasy, but at the end of the day, the real takeaway is its emotionally-tinged story that focuses on the love-slash-frustration we have over people in our family. It's true that adults look on their parents differently as they did as children. We all, in our own way, wish to continue to view them as our heroes and protectors, and, perhaps, vice versa.
In a sense, Edward's folksy tall-tales may seem far-fetched and quite outlandish, but they certainly speak volumes of all our human need to appear better (really, heroic) in our children's eyes. What parent doesn't want to seem super extraordinary to their kid, even if it means adding embellishments about themselves? Unfortunately for Will, as an adult these stories become less awesome and more of a liability, keeping him at arm's length from learning who his father truly is. Perhaps "ordinary" just isn't good enough to be for Edward—particularly now that he feels the need to leave behind a memorable legacy.
This miscommunication between father and son is the constant theme running throughout “BIG FISH”—a deeply charged motif that makes “BIG FISH” a truly relatable story in spite of the fantasy elements that dominate it.
But, overall, all Will ever wanted was a truth-telling, present father, but all Edward thought Will needed—perhaps as compensation for being so maddeningly absent—was a father explaining his absence by creating a persona that was much more extraordinary than he truly is in real life. While these stories certainly aren't good enough to compensate for his absence, in a way, that's exactly what Edward becomes... a truly extraordinary person living quite an amazing life.
Heartfelt at its core, Chance Theater's “BIG FISH” may swim in a small pond in Anaheim, but it is still a lovely, satisfying view.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos from Chance Theater's production of “BIG FISH” by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio.
Chance Theater's Production of “BIG FISH” continues on the Cripe Stage through July 29, 2018. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.