Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Big Fish
Lamb's Players Theatre
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Kelsey Venter and Brandon Joel Maier
Photo by John Howard
Andrew Lippa is one of those theatre songwriters/composers whose work has become increasingly appreciated over time. There have been acclaimed stagings of many of his musicals, including The Wild Party, A Little Princess, and The Addams Family. Similar to The Addams Family, which was revised on tour, Big Fish developed a stronger following after leaving Broadway. This is the second time the adaptation of the original novel and Tim Burton film is playing in San Diego County since 2015. An earlier interpretation from Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista was based on the original Broadway staging. What makes the Lamb's Players Theatre rendition unique is their interpretation using the "12 chairs" version, which stars a dozen cast members and a few songs not featured in Manhattan.

In the not too distant past, world-weary journalist Will Bloom (Michael Cusimano) doesn't feel close to his tall-tale loving father Edward (Brandon Joel Maier). Although Edward loves to share fantastical events from his young adulthood, Will believes his dad lies in order to appear heroic. Heartbroken after hearing that Edward is dying from cancer, Will hopes to find peace with him before he passes away. In order to do this, Will and his pregnant French wife Josephine (Catie Grady) begins to keep track of all of Edward's unbelievable "adventures."

Associate Artistic Director and Director of Patron Services, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, celebrates both the ordinary and extraordinary in her direction. Scenes shift between the realistic present and the fairy tale-like past, and she balances the time periods with a good amount of empathy. Credit also should go to bookwriter John August (who wrote the screenplay to the 2003 movie) for keeping emotions in check even as his scope grows. When magical things happen, such as encounters with a brassy-voiced witch (Anise Ritchie) or a kind-hearted giant named Karl (Jack French on opening night), the experiences never come at the expense of character development. Instead, theatregoers become interested in learning as much as possible about Edward.

The Alabama raconteur's tales are really brought to life by the talents of the crew members. Mike Buckley's set, Nathan Peirson's lighting, and projections from Michael McKeon and Patrick Duffy all create a storybook quality for Edward's adventures. Duffy's audio effects and Javier Velasco's surreal choreography also add to the wonder happening onstage. Throughout the night, the design team leaves audiences questioning if everything Edward is sharing is fake or, as he croons early on, "The God's Honest Truth."

Maier portrays different stages of Edward's existence. No old man makeup or prosthetics is required for the lead to convey him throughout different decades. He goes back and forth from passionately wide-eyed to sickly believably because of the way he internalizes each sequence. Ensemble members Charles Evans Jr., Jordan Miller, Megan Carmitchel, and Ritchie perform with the energy of a traveling theatrical troupe. Every supporting artist is equally game for the witty dialogue and cheery songs like "Start Over" and "Ashton's Favorite Son."

Lippa's musical numbers include influences ranging from old-fashioned ditties and love ballads to bluegrass. While a lot of the songs are fun to listen to, it's Edward's duets with his child and his compassionate wife Sandra (Kelsey Venter), like "Daffodils" and "Fight the Dragons," that are the most powerful. Maier, Venter, Cusimano, and Gavin Reid August as a younger Will sing with deep affection and warmth that grows during the night. Accompanying them are a visible band including keyboardist/conductor Andy Ingersoll, cellist Diana Elledge, and violinist Corrie Bunnell. Ingersoll and the other musicians are partially responsible for navigating emotions ranging from uplifting joy to tear-inducing sadness.

Although Big Fish can be enjoyed by the whole family, be aware that certain moments dealing with Edward's disease are guaranteed to hit close to home for some. Without turning the narrative into a downer, Lippa and August manage to craft a feel-good show that isn't afraid to go to darker places. Edward might be suffering, but he doesn't want others to pity him. Despite his health, he wants to leave the world on his terms. Seeing the patriarch fight to live as long as possible is poignant and bittersweet.

Cathartic and often funny, Smyth is giving Coronado residents and visitors a chance to see a touching fantasy. Anyone celebrating Father's Day late should definitely consider buying tickets before the end of the run.

Lamb's Players Theatre presents Big Fish through July 30, 2017. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays at 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado. Tickets start at $27.00 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 1-619-437-6000.

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