Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Big Fish
SpeakEasy Stage Company

Also see Nancy's review of The Colored Museum


Lee David Skunes, Steven Goldstein, and Company
SpeakEasy Stage Company landed a big one with the New England premiere of a new adaptation of Big Fish. Referred to as the "12 chairs version," this smaller, more intimate iteration by bookwriter John August and composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa reduces the size and scope of the Broadway production, directed by Susan Stroman, which ran for three months in 2013. Based on Daniel Wallace's novel of the same name, which August also adapted for the Tim Burton-directed film in 2003, this Fish maintains the skeleton, but has had some scales removed to give it greater buoyancy. Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault is at the helm of a cast and crew that rides high in the water.

And who wouldn't be high after spending two weeks in the company of the show's creators? Both Lippa and August rehearsed with the troupe and made changes up until days before the opening. The New York cast of 26 actors and 14-piece orchestra was downsized to 12 local actors and a six-piece bluegrass band, making it a better fit for smaller regional theaters. With a story that moves fluidly between reality and fantasy, most of the ensemble play double roles between the two worlds, while the principals morph back and forth between their older and younger selves. It asks a lot of the actors, but it works as long as the audience is on board to suspend their disbelief.

Big Fish is all about the power of imagination, telling the story of Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who tells the biggest stories, enchanting everyone except his son Will. Where Edward lives in a world of invention and make believe, Will is a realist who sees things as black and white. Wife and mother Sandra is in the middle, and Will's new wife Josephine adds a wrinkle to the family fabric when she becomes pregnant, ramping up Will's motivation to understand his father. When Edward becomes ill, his son's search for the truth takes on greater urgency as he revisits the scenes where the tall tales took root and sprouted.

Steven Goldstein brings likability to the role of Bloom, maintaining his exuberance throughout all of the ups and downs of his journey, and sings the heck out of the anthems ("Be the Hero," "Out There on the Road," and "Fight the Dragons") that detail his adventures. With her character often relegated to playing second fiddle, Aimee Doherty's natural light is toned down, but she finds nuance in Sandra's arc. She blends effervescence and shyness in the young version of the girl trying out for the circus and, as the woman being strong for her fearful husband, finds the right level of understatement in the emotional "I Don't Need a Roof." Together, they are in the foreground of what is arguably Daignault's best-staged scene in the show, when Edward is stunned by love at first sight of Sandra. He sings "Time Stops" while the ensemble moves in slow motion, creating an exquisite tableau as the music builds to a romantic climax. Both Goldstein and Doherty give excellent individual performances, but, although I would expect it to deepen further into the run, their connection feels platonic at this stage.

Sam Simahk (Will) spends a lot of time being angry as he and Goldstein convey the father-son tension, as well as the pain it causes them, culminating in a fierce side-by-side duet cut from the Broadway show ("This River Between Us"). He shows Will's softer side with both his mother and his wife, and shines when he sings "Stranger," describing his relationship with his unborn son and his mysterious father. Katie Clark does what she can with the slight characterization of Josephine, showing her to be warm and supportive, and adds her considerable dance talent to the ensemble.

The wonderful assemblage of vocal talents extends throughout the ensemble, including Aubin Wise belting it out as the Witch, Lee David Skunes appropriately deep-voiced as Karl the Giant, Sara Schoch as Edward's high school sweetheart Jenny Hill, Zaven Ovian as his hometown nemeses Don Price, and Daniel Scott Walton as Zacky Price. Will McGarrahan is dignified as Dr. Bennett and larger than life as Amos Callaway, a Professor Marvel type who owns the circus where Edward and Sandra meet. Edward's mermaid comes alive with Sarah Crane's dance moves, and everyone gets into the act in choreographer Larry Sousa's complex Alabama Stomp routine.

Each of Edward's stories is transmitted from his imagination to the stage by collaboration of the excellent design team: Jenna McFarland Lord (scenic design), Seághan McKay (projections design), Karen Perlow (lighting design), and David Reiffel (sound design). They enable the characters to journey over the river, through the woods, into a cave with bats, to a field of bright yellow daffodils, and into a brighter future. Elisabetta Polito's costumes bring the fantasies to life, with those for the witch, the giant, and the mermaid deserving special mention. Musical director Matthew Stern (piano/conductor) and five musicians make Lippa's eclectic, country-tinged score dance, and never overpower the singing.

Big Fish is an entertaining show with lessons that resonate for all ages. I didn't see it on Broadway, so I can't make a comparison, but employing fewer bells and whistles, and trusting the audience to suspend disbelief and use their own imaginations to go on Edward Bloom's journey seems to be the recipe for success. As is so often the case, when Daignault and SpeakEasy Stage Company put their stamp on a production, less ends up being more.

Big Fish performances through April 11, 2015, at SpeakEasy Stage Company in the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com.

Book by John August, Music & Lyrics by Andrew Lippa, Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the Columbia Motion Picture written by John August; Directed by Paul Daigneault, Musical Direction by Matthew Stern, Choreography by Larry Sousa; Scenic Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, David Reiffel; Projections Design, Seághan McKay; Properties Designer, Kat Nakaji; Dialect Coach, Amelia Broome; Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith; Assistant Stage Manager, Michele Teevan

Cast (in alphabetical order): Katie Clark, Sarah Crane, Jackson Daley, Aimee Doherty, Steven Goldstein,Will McGarrahan, Zaven Ovian, Sara Schoch, Sam Simahk, Lee David Skunes, Daniel Scott Walton, Aubin Wise


Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

- Nancy Grossman




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