By Patrick O’Brien
Two years after its pre-Broadway tryout, Big Fish has found its way back to the lands of Lake Michigan, specifically to Theatre at the Center, where – if opening night was any indication – it will meet a much less salty reception than the one it found in that big pond.
And why wouldn’t it? Daniel Wallace’s novel, guided to the big screen by Tim Burton in 2003, is a timeless tale of fathers and sons, dreams and imagination and learning to see the value in one’s faults as well as their virtues.
Likewise, Big Fish has its faults, but also its virtues. Moreso in the presentation than in the bare bones, because the frame itself is solid: Edward Bloom (Stef Tovar) is an irrepressible cornpone fabulist – a big fish in the Alabama rivers – who has always kept a hold on the fort away from home on work by weaving fantastical stories for his young son Will (Nate Becker) and wife Sandra (Colette Todd) to chew on – stories of the giants and mermaids and witches and werewolves right outside their door; the lessons he learned from them; and the ones they learned from him.
One problem: Will is a born realist, leaving an emotional gap between them that only grows larger as he grows up (Nathan Gardner). But faced with the greatest emotional anchor of all – a son of his own – as well as Edward’s failing health, Will takes his new wife Josephine (Callie Johnson) down home once more to make sense of the “stranger he knows too well” in the time he has left.
No one is arguing that Edward’s tall tales lend themselves very well to song, dance and stagecraft (or impressive costuming, as seen in William Ivey Long’s Broadway originals). And the musical is certainly a solid vehicle for a middle-aged actor with a titanic range for humor and pathos, as Tovar proves many times over, a veritable human cannonball. (Perhaps rendering the feat depicted onstage redundant.)
But if Edward gets the meat, Big Fish screenwriter John August’s theatrical adaptation leaves the bones to the remaining actors. Will and Sandra in particular can easily slide into one-dimensional opposites: him, a skeptical killjoy; her, eternal maternalistic patience. (No one is let down more than Johnson, a tremendous talent here given little more to do than give birth to Will’s son.) Perhaps because of this, the three of them get repeatedly sidelined to give the stage over to Edward’s rather episodic tales.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is also a fair amount of Broadway bloat left over from Fish’s initial journey. The musical is an intimate one at heart – four main actors and a small ensemble, really. But the show is called Big Fish, not Little Fish (that’s a different musical entirely), and one can feel the inflation needed to fill a commercial theater, from the big orchestration of Andrew Lippa’s otherwise pleasant songs (however able William Underwood’s baton is); to the big groaners; to the big ensemble; to the big dance breaks. The song “Showdown,” in particular, is where this stands out the most: It’s a nightmare sequence where Edward, having dozed off after another scuffle with Will, finds that his dreams can nastily turn on him. Instead of exploring these nasty turns any further, we get a big Western-style hoedown.
It stands out all the more because the song right after gets it exactly right. Soothed from his nightmares, Sandra asserts to Edward that “I Don’t Need a Roof” to “be covered,” to feel at home, as long as they’re together. Two people in a few follow spots on a bare stage, as simple as that. And in the moments when Todd sings how she doesn’t need a roof, one won’t need for anything else.
Really, all the best moments are all like that, when the storytelling is at its simplest: Gardner wraps his chops around his defining song, “Stranger,” giving us a vital and necessary glimpse into Will’s vulnerability and doubt; and “Daffodils,” a song tasked with filling the stage with the things, never goes beyond simple stage surprises, but otherwise focuses on revealing Edward’s humanity; not just his dotty bluster, but his love. Anyone who can net a proposal like “Daffodils” is the luckiest person in the world.
In those moments, director William Pullinsi really makes a case for the musical’s endurance, and he manages to keep the less stellar material swilling like moonshine. (Karl the not-surprisingly surprisingly erudite giant, benefits particularly well in this regard, also helped by John Stemberg‘s deadpan.) Same with Linda Fortunato‘s dances: It’s debatable whether this production strictly needs a full-on USO pastiche, but, like Edward’s better side, they’re big and joyfully forceful. (The Witch’s song, “I Know What You Want,” is a triple highlight of dance, costuming and Bethany Thomas‘s rafter-shaking vocals.)
The space is also a model reflection of simple storytelling, with Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s planks and scaffolds, with an overhang redolent of Alabama underbrush, further washed by lighting designer Guy Rhodes. And sound designer Barry Funderburg gives us a healthily flowing river for these big fishes to swim in without drowning the audience.
Big Fish may flounder at times, but it will live on in the canon as long as there are dreamers and doubters, magic-makers and truth-seekers. And, most importantly, as long as there are heroes, people willing to write their own stories, according to Edward Bloom. It’s up to the Will Blooms in all of us to figure out what that means, whether to “fight the dragon and save the damsel” or to square off with one’s limitations.
Edward Bloom has his limitations – a tucked-away hometown and the denizens he must face (namely Don, played at opening to Dogpatch perfection by Brian Duncan), as well as the one person he couldn’t save (a heartbreaking Rachel Sparrow). But anyone who isn’t moved by the last fifteen minutes of the show where the story of his life – the glorious life of the common man – is laid out by his son – should jump in a lake.
“Big Fish” runs through June 7 at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, Ind. There is free parking. Performances are on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; and Sundays at 2:30 pm; and select Thursday and Sunday evenings and Saturday matinees. Tickets ($40-$44) are available via the box office at (219) 836-3255 or online here. Group discounts are available for groups of 11 or more. For more information, visit here.