Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The latest musical theater offering from Northern Kentucky University (NKU) displays the college's up and coming program and talented student performers, as well as a new version of a show that many frequent theatergoers might have come to know in recent years.
Big Fish debuted on Broadway in 2013, and is based on Daniel Wallace's 1998 "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions," as well as the Tim Burton directed 2003 film written by John August. It focuses on the strained relationship between Edward Bloom and his adult son Will, jumping back and forth between Will's childhood and Will as an adult. Edward tells many tall tales about his life, and his adult son longs to know the truth behind the man before his father dies. The musical version did not succeed on Broadway, lasting less than four months, but has had numerous productions since then, including a recent London staging.
The book for the stage version is by Big Fish film screenwriter John August. There have been changes made to the plot to streamline it as compared to the movie version. The story contains romance, intrigue, conflict, humor, and relatable relationships, along with (of course) plenty of fantasy. The writing is strong, but the combination of stories and the back and forth nature of the storytelling makes it feel somewhat disjointed overall.
The score boasts music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, The Addams Family). Lippa is an expert songwriter, with the music here capturing either the emotional pull of the relationship-focused songs, or the whimsical tone of the fantasy moments. The lyrics contain apt wordplay and sufficient wit, and have a high level of craftsmanship overall. The opening "Be a Hero" captures Edward's personal outlook on life as he teaches his son the same. "The Witch" is a funky introduction to the first tall tale presented. "Stranger" is a soaring ballad for son Will, and "I Don't Need a Roof" is a lovely, touching song for Edward's wife Sandra to her dying husband.
For theatergoers already familiar with the show, this production features a number of changes from both the Broadway version and even the recent London staging (that included some, though not all of the alterations seen at NKU). Several scenes and songs have been cut, including the Red Fang war story (and the accompanying song "Red, White, and True") and the western-themed accusation scene (and song "Showdown"). Replacing that scene is a strong duet between father and son entitled "The River Between Us," which more efficiently covers the same ground. Neither scene is missed plot-wise, though "Red, White, and True" was a fun number. Also gone is "Two Men in My Life", replaced by a more fitting song titled "Magic in the Man", also for wife Sandra. Mr. Lippa is known for tinkering with (and, as a result, improving) his shows, as The Addams Family improved vastly from its out-town-trying to Broadway to national tour (and now licensed version).
The NKU production was a bit wobbly on opening night, with a few fumbled lines and separation between singer and orchestra, but will no doubt stabilize with more performances. Director Jamey Strawn provides clear storytelling, employs some unique ideas (he has Will's pregnant wife Josephine insert herself as one of the three girls in "Little Lamb from Alabama" while her husband conveys that tale to her), and makes good use of the performance area (the pit is used for the river / mermaid scenes effectively, while the orchestra is at the back of the stage). This production contains lots of dance, and choreographer Tracey Bonner provides well-suited dances and movement throughout. Damon Stevens leads a talented seven-piece orchestra.
As Edward, Collin Newton does a fine job in a challenging role. The heavy Southern accent is a bit of a restraint on his line delivery and vocals (at times sounding unnatural), but he shows himself to be a strong actor and singer, excelling particularly during his telling of the stories. Matthew Nassida provides the strongest singing moments of the show as grown son Will, with a stirring rendition of "Stranger" garnering the loudest applause of the evening. Adria Whitfill is a sympathetic and strong wife as Sandra. She is a delightful singer and provides the tenderhearted nature necessary for the role. As Will's pregnant wife Josephine, Sara Cox is very endearing and makes some memorable moments out of a small role. Also shining in supporting roles are Charlie Lindeman (Young Will), Sam Johnson (Karl the Giant), Alexander Slade (Don Price), Chloe Price (Jenny Hill), Ben Cohen (Amos), and Ella Rivera (The Witch). The small ensemble deserves praise as well.
The unit set by Ronald A. Shaw features wooden walls made up of panels with large gaps between the planks, with sliding and opening doors. It is functional and general enough to represent the various locales of the show, especially when complemented by smaller pieces and props. The costumes by Elizabeth Joos are a bit hit and miss, with those for the Witch and a few other fantasy characters somewhat uninspired, but providing the Mermaid with a spectacular design. Terry Powell's lighting features several interesting effects, including in the cave scene, and is professionally rendered. There are a number of well-executed sound effects as designed by Jeremiah Kearns.
Big Fish is an evolving piece of musical theater that features a strong score and a unique if challenging story. The production at NKU may need a bit more time to be at its best, but there is much talent on display on and off stage within this emerging program.
Big Fish. through October 7, 2018, at NKU Corbett Theatre in Highland Heights KY. For tickets and more information, visit www.theatre.nku.edu or call 859-572-5464.