What do you get when a teller of tall tales has a Gradgrind for a son?
You get the conflict that is at the heart of Big Fish, which began as a novel by Daniel Wallace, was adapted into a film by John August, and then turned into a musical by August and composer/librettist Andrew Lippa. It’s a conflict that feels familiar even to those of us whose fathers weren’t fabulists, because at heart it’s about the unbridgeable gulf between parents and children. Much as we yearn to know our parents, they will always have had lives and dreams and memories and secrets we can’t access.
The dad in question here is Edward Bloom, played with charisma and verve by Billy Hartung. His habit of telling unbelievable stories drives his son Will (Matt Calvert) nuts, partly because Will prefers reality to fantasy, and partly because he finds his father’s egocentrism grating. The musical opens on the eve of Will’s wedding to Josephine (Hope Anthony), with Will begging Edward not to ruin his wedding by spinning crazy yarns. But what also nags at Will is the feeling that his father is hiding something behind his stories and that he will never get at the truth – a feeling brought into sharp focus when Edward confesses to Will that he is dying of cancer. Will’s quest to discover the truth behind the stories brings him to the realization that his father has, in fact, been a hero of his life’s story, as the opening number insists – just in a much more quiet manner than his father made himself out to be.
Under Spencer Whale’s confident direction, the Front Porch Theatricals production of the musical imaginatively realizes the hero’s journey that Edward has fabricated upon the scaffold of his past. The scene design (Gianni Downs) establishes the setting of the play as a kind of attic of the mind, where tokens of memory are stored, and in the opening number of the musical we are cleverly introduced to the “real-life” versions of the near-mythical characters who later appear in Edward’s “big fish” stories: the girl in the water (Alex Manalo) whom he transforms into a mermaid; the taller-than-average gentleman (Henri Fitzmaurice) who will find his way into the tale as Karl the Giant; and the dark-haired lady (Missy Moreno) who gets transmogrified into a witch. When these characters later return we can readily see how all it took was just a little seasoning, just a tiny willingness to sprinkle some fancy onto memory, for Edward to turn them into larger than life figures.
Billy Hartung is winning in the role of Edward, as easy in his skin in the role of the elder Edward as he is playing Edward as a teenaged kid. He exudes an infectious joy for life that wins us over to his penchant for fabulism. Yet to the production’s credit, Calvert also garners our sympathy for son Will’s perspective: it would be damned hard to have a dad who constantly spun outrageous tales, especially if you tended to be as literal-minded as Will grows to be. As Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife, Kristiann Menotiades is warm and appealing, and she does a particularly delightful turn as the teenaged version of the character in the comic number “Little Lamb from Alabama.”
Choreographer Mara Newbery Greer establishes a swirling choreographic vocabulary for the production, sweeping characters and story lines on and off the stage with a fluidity that perfectly serves the mood and energy of the play. The small ensemble is terrific, and they populate the action of the play with a variety of lively and vividly realized characters: Jason Swauger plays the wily circus master/werewolf Amos Calloway; Elizabeth Boyke is Jenny Hill, Edward’s childhood sweetheart; Stanley Graham and Matt Augustyniak are Don and Zacky Price, Edward’s high-school buddies; and Marlo Williams plays Will as a young boy. Standout moments in the show include Missy Moreno’s solo in “The Witch” and Henri Fitzmaurice’s stomp dance on stilts in “Out There on the Road.”
The Broadway production of this musical got a lot of buzz for its over-the-top production numbers and special effects (and budget, as well); Whale’s pared-down version of the show, in contrast, generates its magic through resourceful theatrical solutions, like the use of a wheeled ladder to send Edward flying out of a cannonball. I’m a fan of that kind of simplicity, especially because it allows us to use our imaginations to summon the fantasy into existence just as Edward used his to invent it in the first place. We’re thus drawn more deeply not only into Edward’s imaginative world, but also into the emotional conflict at the center of the story, where the real payoff of any theatrical experience lies. In the end, it’s not the special effects and magic tricks of this musical that have moved us, but the discovery of a shared joy between father and son.