By Quinn Rigg
Nothing lasts forever: flowers wilt, cream spoils, a warm Chicago summer descends into the bitter freeze of a six-month-long winter… A good story, however, can outlast everything — even death itself.
Closing its 15th season, BoHo Theatre ensnares the immortal magic of story inside the Greenhouse Theater Center for their latest production. A testament to the life-sustaining tradition of storytelling, BoHo’s production of Big Fish delineates the separation between what is “true” and what is “real.”
With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by John August, Big Fish follows a son’s pursuit of the truth regarding the high-flying life of his equivocating father. A synopsis of the plot may be found here.
Director Stephen Schellhardt reels the audience into the fantastical world of Big Fish. His understanding of the space leads to delightful surprises jumping out of every corner. His inventiveness with bodies on the set is matched by his intuition toward the inner lives of each actor. Moment by moment, Schellhardt spins the connective thread of relationships, endowing every dramatic action with clear emotional intent. Despite the fanciful splendor of Edward Bloom’s tall tales, the characters on stage are very real — whether or not they are “true.” There is a consistent candor that Shcellhardt weaves into this production, manifested by a stellar and attentive ensemble.
Choreography by Megan Farley is snappy and adorable. Farley is adept at mixing endearing comedy with artful aesthetics: the result is a spectacular blend of grace and hilarity. Riffing off of Schellhardt’s play of space, Farley makes use of the set’s tiers in order to frame the main action of a song. Whether it be a fish-stirring hoedown stomp, or a dream-stirring lullaby, the energy of Farley’s choreography is contagious.
Music direction from Michael McBride crackles with energy. Reorchestrated for the blackbox theater, this production showcases some of the brightest musicians in Chicago, including bassist Rafe Bradford, guitarist Perry Cowdery, violinist Hillary Bayley, cellist Rachel Shuldt and Lior Shragg on drums. Together with McBride’s surgical precision on piano, this band underscores the epic of Edward Bloom with legendary professionalism. In McBride’s capable hands, Lippa’s score comes alive, reverberating through the space with decadence dynamicism.
Scenic design by Lauren M. Nichols is subtle yet astoundingly brilliant. A simple perimeter of bleakly-colored docks frames the pit orchestra, and a gnarled tree curls over on edge of the stage. The brilliance of this approach is it’s play with light. The coloring of the set presents a blank slate upon which imagination can let loose — the stark colors capture the changing light with artful surprise.
The blank slate of Nichols’ set is painted skillfully by lighting designer G. “Max” Maxin IV. Maxin’s watchful eye plays tricks on the mind; his use of stark color contrast brilliantly realizes the range of imagination. From dank swamp, to field of daffodils, Maxin realizes location after location with tactful artistry.
The bar set high by a stellar production team, BoHo’s cast of Big Fish shatters conventionality with their astounding passion and skill. With the stamina of a freight train, Tommy Thurston leads this production with intense exuberance as Edward Bloom. Thurston’s dynamic performance pairs captivating nuance with spellbinding animation, deftly jumping from an ambitious youth to a dying father. The resonant warble of Thurston’s voice is sonorous, and a certain smokiness in his timbre creates an air of stylized folk; as a result, Edward Bloom’s storied imagination is embodied within the very core of Thurston’s vocal mechanism.
Kyrie Anderson brings dimension to the role of Sandra Bloom. Anderson demonstrates clear investment in her partners onstage; as such, her chemistry bubbles on stage. Anderson and Thurston make for a dynamic duo onstage.
Jeff Pierpoint crafts a riveting performance as Will Bloom. Pierpoint tactfully realizes the arc of the story. As Will Bloom uncovers more about his father’s history, he is converted more by what lies within himself; he must move past mere fact if he is to understand the lessons his father tried to teach. Grounded in the world around him, and fascinated by the world inside of him, Pierpoint manifests Will’s struggle in captivating “clear and present tense.”
Artfully produced by a top-notch design team, and skillfully realized by a handful of Chicago’s brightest performers, BoHo Theatre creates true magic with Big Fish. BoHo manages to tame a maelstrom of fantasy whirling across the Lincoln Avenue. Yet, save for the boundless ambition of the human mind, nothing lasts forever — including this production. However, the stories that BoHo continues to leave behind will certainly outlast the stubborn chill of many more Chicago winters to come.
BoHo Theatre presents “Big Fish” through November 17 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets may be found here.