Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
This story began as a critically acclaimed book by Daniel Wallace, now just up the road, teaching at UNC Chapel Hill. John August adapted Wallace's novel into a screenplay that was directed by Tim Burton in 2003, but ten years later, August returned to the material, this time shaping it into a book for a musical, with Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family, The Wild Party) providing music and lyrics. The story centers around an estranged relationship between a father, Edward Bloom (the talented Timothy Gulan), and his son Will (a charismatic Chris Dwan). Will needs to uncover the truth of his father's past, which has been masked by the outlandish tales his father has told him over the years. Edward has spent a good deal of his life on the road as a traveling salesman, so he has attempted to compensate for not being around much by telling his son eccentric stories involving witches (a delightful Chandra Branch) and giants (a true standout in Paul Hinkes). Another tale traces how he met his wife Sandra (the lovely Lauren Kennedy) and the hardships he endured just to find her again. As Will is about to begin his own family, though, he wants to sort the truth of his father's past from these magical stories, but his quest winds up blurring the line between fact and fiction even more.
Mr. August has captured the strongest moments from both novel and film to bring a musical version to life, though as in most cases, much is lost in translation due to time constraints. But the book holds up well and is probably the strongest part of this musical overall. Lippa's score is enjoyable but perhaps not strongly memorable.
Under the direction of Eric Woodall, the creative team has transformed the intimate black box theatre into something that must be seen to be believed. What was a larger-than-life musical on Broadway has been stripped away to great effect: Scenic designer Josh Smith has built a "ginormous" attic space, littered with home goods, knickknacks, and old furniture, which the cast uses to evoke Edward's imaginative world. Simple cloth and hand fans become a mermaid's tail, while beach umbrellas form a circus tent. These charming details somehow keep the focus on the relationships among the characters, especially between father and son. Lighting design by Erich R. Keil adds effective mood and mystery to the space. Abbey O'Brien's choreography utilizes the limited space well and adds to the creativity of set and props with inspired movement.
The entire cast performs well, though there were pitch problems on occasion at the performance I attended, especially from Mr. Gulan. I wondered whether the performers might have had trouble hearing the orchestra; the ensemble seemed to lack volume. Mr. Gulan, however, does a superb job otherwise in bringing Edward Bloom to life. With a near perfect Alabama accent and an infectious personality, he would easily draw anyone close to his knee as he "spins some yarn." Chris Dwan, as Edward's son Will, is a worthy counterpoint. Lauren Kennedy transforms with ease from mother to teenager in flashback at the turn of the hat, embracing each stage of Sandra Bloom's life with authenticity. As Karl the Giant, Paul Hinkes commands attention from his first entrance, his already considerable height ingeniously enhanced. His presence was warmly felt each time he graced the stage.
Along with others, I have complained that Broadway seems to have fallen back on familiar works to gain the attention of the tourist crowd, creating shows out of source material that might not have been worthy of a musical. And, though Big Fish itself is not a home run, this production may inspire you to revisit the stories you heard in your childhood and consider how they shaped your relationships with the ones who cared for you. Sometimes the things we thought were insignificant wind up being the most important. There is a saying about big fish and small ponds, and with this production, Theatre Raleigh shows once again that while it may not be the largest operation in the Triangle, it has truly delightful things to offer.
Theatre Raleigh's Big Fish, through July 22, 2018, at the Kennedy Theatre Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, 2 East South St., Raleigh NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.theatreraleigh.com or by phone at 919-832-9997. There will be a special talk back by author Daniel Wallace on Thursday, July 19th, and after the matinee on Sunday, July 22nd.
Music and Lyrics: Andrew Lippa