“Part epic tale, part fire sale–just one dad, inspiring just one son,” we’re told at a key point in Musical Theatre West’s “Big Fish”, the hit musical based on the 2003 Blockbuster Tim Burton film of the same name. Indeed, Long Beach California’s foremost theater company at “The Carpenter Center For The Performing Arts” has definitely “caught a big one” with this West Coast debut which kicks-off their dynamic 62nd consecutive season! Featuring a book by John August (based on his BAFTA-winning screenplay) and a captivating score by Andrew Lippa, MTW’s re-staging features the original Broadway sets and costumes. It all adds up to a truly ‘spellbinding’ production that, as Producer Paul Garman so succinctly put on opening night, “Speaks to the heart”.
Following the relationship between Edward Bloom, a successful traveling salesman who describes himself as “a man whose at his best when he’s not at rest”, and his grown son Will–a logical-thinking, down-to-earth reporter, (on the verge of fatherhood himself,) the younger Bloom yearns to know the truth of his father’s life beyond all the wonderfully impossible ‘tall-tales’ he’s been told since childhood. This quest for understanding forms the framework of all the events that follow. “Son, you were born a tiny middle-aged man” his father tells him, later adding, “All your rainbows are in shades of grey!” (Yes, Dad’s a big talker–but a very likeable one.) What Will doesn’t know though, is that Edward has “ambitious Cancer” which he’s trying to hide from him until he can no more. Told in flashback (and sometimes featuring flashbacks within flashbacks) August’s book easily navigates all the potential snags inherent to adapting such an overtly ‘cinematic property’ to the musical stage; in fact, he makes them all seem fairly natural and free-flowing from one adventure to the next. Lippa’s score too, wisely forgoes most of the standard ‘stand-apart’ ballads or generic “money” songs, favoring instead those that express their characters deepest inner lives; rest assured though, that mixed in are plenty of absolutely awesome, “stand-up and cheer” production numbers featuring all or most of the cast—often in fantastic settings!
Over the course of numerous ‘recollections’, we learn that Edward was initially “A ‘Big Fish’ in a small pond’ that was his hometown of Ashton Alabama”; however, his ambitions (or at least his professed accounts of them) were too large for such a small town, so he strikes out to ‘see the world’ promising to return someday. Among his “exploits” are those that involve war-time intrigue, Giants, Mermaids, Witches—even a stint with a travelling circus where he first meets “Sandra”—the girl who’ll be the love of his life. Eager to learn more about her, Edward makes a deal with the Big Top’s owner and resident Ring-Master, “Amos Calloway”, that he’ll even work for free if, every month, Calloway gives him one more clue as to how to win her heart. Once Bloom discovers that Amos is also a ‘werewolf’, he’s finally told that the girl’s name is “Sandra Templeton” and she now attends “Auburn University”. Throughout Edward’s vast ‘storybook’ version of his past he always comes out on top–usually by helping those he encounters to succeed themselves; yet Will ultimately discovers it’s the one true heroic incident his father never told, that reveals his sincere nobility. “If you understand the stories, you’ll understand the man,” Will’s wife, Josephine tells him.
Larry Carpenter’s lively and fluid direction makes the most of the large stage space, while still furnishing enough intimacy for the more introspective moments the story boasts. This enables the most spectacular events and emotions to (literally) burst forth from the most subdued beginnings, which adds immensely to the production’s overall ‘mythical’ quality. Likewise, the buoyant (and at times, even boisterous) choreography by Peggy Hickey matches his pace and energy–referencing the original by Susan Stroman, while still showcasing many diverse types of dance (including plenty of eye-popping acrobatics) which proves to be her genuine triumph here! “Be The Hero Of Your Story” is an all-out ebullient opening which includes a clever ‘hambone’ inspired bit of fancy footwork called “The Alabama Stomp” in which Edward shows a fisherman the REAL way to catch a fish! Additionally, in that one of his stories concerns a witch living in a swamp, this gives rise to an equally awesome number titled, “I Know What You Want” —complete with a Zumba-esque ‘voodoo dance’ during which she advises “I can show you counterfeit from true” while offering to show the teenaged Edward the day and circumstances surrounding his death. (“Life begins when you know how it ends” the enchantress tells him.) Later, when the second act commences, we find Bloom telling his young son and his scout troop of the time he was a soldier, as we’re transported to a 1940’s U.S.O. with the rousing “Red Hot And True”. This is where real homage is paid to Ms. Stroman’s distinctive ‘signature’ moves via a line of fresh-faced hostesses who launch into a terrific—and stylishly dapper–parade of top-flight tapping terpsichory, even as Bloom “faces off” against his arch-enemy, the sinister “Red Fang”. There’s even a moment in the circus scene that features a trio of elephants ‘hopping and bopping’ in rhythm to the music! Special kudos are also in order for Phil Monat and John Infante, whose spot-on lighting and innovative “projection” designs respectively, make this production all the more bewitching, presenting bucket-loads of really inventive special effects whether they be illuminating a placid southern river, a vibrant field of daffodils, a murky bog or a fiery Giant’s cave.
The entire ensemble is hard-working–expertly handling some pretty exceptional material, and their efforts pay off ‘big time’ for both the performers and the audience alike! Leading them is Jeff Skowron as Edward Bloom, the hero of our story. Jeff effectively crosses between Edward’s various “ages” (from clumsy adolescent to the eager young man, then to the more paternal middle-aged man–and eventually, to one who finally comes to terms with his life and illness,) with great authenticity and perhaps most importantly, great empathy too. In addition, Skowron’s voice is particularly well suited for his songs, making the most of Composer Lippa’s frequently catchy turns-of-phrase: “Somewhere a surprising ending waits for me to tell it” he sings to the boy Will during the first of many flashbacks, adding “the best part of an adventure is the people you meet!” He also does a remarkable job with the First Act closer, “Daffodils”, wherein Edward proposes to Sandra amid a stage overflowing with the bright yellow flowers. Rebecca Johnson also does a superb job as his wife, similarly portraying her at different ages. She too has some pretty potent moments herself, like Sandra’s incredible Act-Two benediction, “I Don’t Need A Roof” (delivered as a gentle lullaby to her ailing husband) that not only showcases her sizable vocal talent, but her ability to deliver honest feelings through it as well (Just don’t be surprised if you find you’ve got a tear or two in your eyes by its conclusion!) Sandra and Edward’s duet, “Time Stops”, sung when the couple-to-be first lay eyes on one another, starts as a pair of dual soliloquies before the two join together in rich harmony making this one of the more impactful moments in a first act full of them. “Fight The Dragons” is another surprisingly powerful duet featuring Skowron, this time opposite young Jude Mason as the pre-teen incarnation of Will, that makes for a touching father-son interlude (“Even though I’m making deals and bringing people joy, I’m usually only thinking of my boy,” Edward assures the lad.) Mason displays abundant appeal as the contemplative “younger” Will–laying a solid foundation for the more mature characterization while providing the perfect counterpoint to the elder Bloom’s high-spirits. By the same token, the ‘adult’ Will, played by Andrew Huber, also has an awesome First-Act solo turn titled “Stranger” which Huber stunningly delivers. In pondering his own impending paternity, he reveals the isolation and emptiness he feels over not knowing the man behind the myths. (Then again, Lippa’s score is laden with these brilliant and emotionally super-charged moments–such is the bona-fide magic of this show!)
As the Bayou’s answer to “Elphaba” or “Circe”, Molly Garner’s “Witch” is flamboyantly seductive with a rich, ample voice, which she demonstrates in “I Know What You Want”—easily filling The Carpenter Center’s substantial 1074 seat auditorium. Michelle Loucadoux also offers excellent support when (plot-wise) it’s needed most as “Jenny Hill”—Edward’s high-school sweetheart, who holds the key to his most monumental accomplishment—the one outstanding deed he’s kept from his wife and son. Timothy Hughes is equally a presence to be reckoned with as “Karl”, an agoraphobic “Giant” Edward meets on one of his many travels. Daring to ask directions, he quickly discovers this Leviathan is actually quite intelligent and far from fearsome (“You’re good with numbers” Ed quips after and being appraised of the absolute mileage; “Only big ones” Karl answers dryly.) Furthermore, Gabriel Kalomas makes for a delightfully crafty “Amos Calloway”, and he’s particularly engaging leading the big group number “Closer To Her”.
This is no ‘fish story’—upon seeing Musical Theatre West’s production, you know you’ve had a rare and extremely moving theatrical experience; What’s more, as entertaining as it is (at times) heart-wrenching, “Big Fish” has an emotional power that subtly sneaks up on you, but once it does, it stays with you in all the very best ways! Having opened on Saturday November 1st, “Big Fish” will play through Sunday November 16th 2014, at “The Carpenter Center For The Performing Arts”, on the campus of California State University, at 6200 E. Atherton Street, in Long Beach, California. Show-times are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with matinees on Saturday and Sundays at 2:00PM (with a special added performance on Thursday evening, November 13th at 8:00 PM) Tickets are available at the “Musical Theatre West” Ticket Office, located at 4350 E. 7th Street, in Long Beach, CA., by phone at (562) 856-1999, ext. 4, or online by visiting: www.musical.org.
Production stills by “Caught In The Moment Photography”, Long Beach CA. (www.caughtinthemoment.com) Courtesy of “Musical Theatre West”; Special Thanks to Paul Garman, Lori Yonan, and to the cast and crew of “Musical Theatre West’s” “Big Fish” for making this story possible.