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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Big Fish
Actor's Youth Theatre


Miles Johnson, India Rose Chudnow
and Jonah Carlson

Turning a movie into a Broadway musical doesn't always meet with success. One recent show that didn't fare well in its musical transfer was Big Fish. Based on the Tim Burton film and the novel by Daniel Wallace, the whimsical musical follows the story of traveling salesman Edward Bloom and brings to life the tall tales he'd often tell his son. It's a shame that the show only managed a three month run in New York, as the score by Andrew Lippa has many memorable tunes and John August's book paints some notable characters. With an extremely talented cast of teenagers who are able to successfully portray both the emotional and comical moments in the story, The Actor's Youth Theatre's Arizona-premiere production proves that a show that might have flopped on Broadway can be a success in regional theatres.

The story follows Edward and his adult son Will over a series of years, with Will often doubting the farfetched stories his father tells of his past. Through a series of flashbacks, including encounters with a mermaid, a giant and even a werewolf, we relive the events of Edward's past, often questioning, like Will, they are true or not. August's imaginative book, which also focuses on Will trying to find the facts among the fables, and Lippa's tuneful songs combine to effectively bring the events and characters to life with both humorous and dramatic results.

The AYT cast is just about perfect, with Jonah Carlson excellent as Edward. Instilling the part with an assured take on a matter of fact "everyman," Carlson not only has you believing in Edward's seemingly imaginary tales but makes you care for him as well. His acting and singing abilities are top notch. As Will, Miles Johnson allows us to understand why he is agitated and has just about had enough of his father's tales, without making the frustration and skepticism appear as anger. This is important to make us care for him, which we do. Johnson has a clear, strong voice, so it's a shame that Will doesn't have that many songs. Sidne Phillips is stunning as Edward's wife Sandra. She clearly projects Sandra's love for her husband and son and makes us understand that she loves Edward, even though he may be making up the stories he tells. Phillips is also a smashing dancer and singer. Her delivery of "I Don't Need a House" is beautiful.

As Josephine, Will's sweet-natured new wife, India Rose Chudnow is charming. She shows Josephine's determination, along with Sandra, to bring the two men back together. Jarem Bailey is absolutely amazing as Young Will, with perfect line delivery that is sweet and sincere yet also includes a big dose of skepticism. Danny Blankemeier is touching as the giant Karl, but also brings a nice layer of humor to the part. In smaller parts, Emma Welch as Jenny Hill, a secret woman from Edward's past, makes all the right acting choices, delivering a solid character in just a few short scenes; Noah Delgado is funny as the circus ringmaster with a secret and Phoebe Koyabe has a powerful voice as the Witch. While the large ensemble and leads are all very good, some of the cast, including a couple of the main cast, could project a bit more, as some of the dialogue and lyrics are hard to hear.

Directors Julie Clement and Marcus Ellsworth do an exceptional job ensuring that the whimsy of the piece doesn't overpower the serious moments, but also let plenty of humor come naturally from the actors and staging. They paint some memorable moments in their lively staging and also make effective use of the center aisle in the theatre for a few key entrances and exits. Choreography from the trio of Ellsworth, Kristen Malarkey, and Corinne Mann is lively and original, including a superb "Little Lamb from Alabama" dance. Mike Smyth's set design works very well to move us from the Bloom house to the various locations in the show and back again, though the heavy bed design does require a few slightly longer scene change moments. Perhaps having it on wheels would have solved that problem. Aurelie Flores' costumes are both period specific and imaginative for some of the characters in Edward's tales, including spectacular outfits for the Witch and her dancers. The lighting design from Tom Fitzwater includes some beautiful underwater images, and Tracie Jones' music direction provides assured singing from her cast and some lovely harmonies.

While the main themes of the musical—love your family and live life to its fullest—may not be new, and the second act does bog down a bit, the important message of realizing that every person you meet is unique and that everyone can be the hero of their own story is something all of us could take to heart. On Broadway, Big Fish was a big musical, with large set pieces and elaborate special effects. Perhaps Actor's Youth Theatre's small budget production, which doesn't allow the spectacle to overtake the story, is how this musical needs to be seen. It lets the imagination and messages of Edward Bloom spring beautifully to life. The success of this production and the fact that the company's next show, Bonnie and Clyde, is another Broadway flop musical shows they aren't afraid to take challenges, not just keep producing the same family friendly shows over and over again, and proves why AYT is one of the best youth theatres in the Valley.

The Actor's Youth Theatre production of Big Fish runs through July 1st, 2015, with performances at the Tuscany Theatre, 861 N Higley Rd, Suite 105, Gilbert, AZ 85234. Tickets and information for this and upcoming productions can be found at actorsyouththeatre.org or by calling 480-907-7050

Directed by Julie Clement and Marcus Ellsworth
Choreographers: Marcus Ellsworth, Kristen Malarkey and Corinne Mann
Music Director: Tracie Jones
Set Designer: Mike Smyth
Costume Designer: Aurelie Flores
Lighting Designer: Tom Fitzwater
Stage Manager: Rebekah Avila

Cast:
Edward Bloom: Jonah Carlson
Will Bloom: Miles Johnson
Young Will: Jarem Bailey
Sandra Bloom: Sidne Phillips
Josephine Bloom: India Rose Chudnow
Karl: Danny Blankemeier
Amos Calloway: Noah Delgado
Don Price (USO Swing Dancer, Mayor #2): Sam Cottle
Zacky Price (Ninja/Little Old Person): LJ Webb
The Witch: Phoebe Koyabe
Jenny Hill (USO Tapper/Ballroom Dancer/Townsperson Dancer): Emma Welch
Girl in the Water: Holly Sullivan
Dr. Bennett (Ninja/Circus Clown): Bailey Gorman
Mayor #1 (Ninja/Groomsman/Knife Thrower): Troy Jansen
Ensemble: Hayden Biggs, Tayte Biggs, Hayley Boblett, Ellie Brooks, Jacob Brooks, Joel Brooks, Megan Codling, Sarah Davidson, Bryce Dilullo, Parker Ellsworth, Meg Farnsworth, Summer Farnsworth, Dayara Leyva, Carlie Meeker, Grace Napoletano, Olivia Nienstedt, Casey Pettyjohn, Matthew Plumb, Haley Reed, Oriana Valcamp, Ethan Vaughn, Kayleah Wilson, Macy Wood, Emily Woodward-Shaw, Ben Wright and Emily Wright


Photo: Lisa Webb / Southwest Shots Photography


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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