Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review (sort of) of Big Fish, or Big Hearts Wide Open

Rebecca Johnson (Sandra Bloom) and Jeff Skowron (Edward Bloom)
Photos by Caught in the Moment Photography

This is less a review and more a series of thoughts about the new musical Big Fish currently playing at Musical Theatre West through November 16. As with all of Musical Theatre West’s productions, there is much to love in it. It is beautifully done, staged with an eye to keeping the humanness of the story intact, and performed by an extremely talented cast that knows how to deliver the goods. This is the west coast regional premiere of the show that ran for only three months on Broadway and if you are a fan of musicals, you would do well to see it.

It is a relationship story – between father and son, husband and wife, man and the world, and it is a story about stories – the kind we tell ourselves to get through the day; the kind we wish were true that envision a world full of magic; and the kind that appeal to that which is universal in us all. Stories are how we share our love and express our hopes and dreams. They have been part of the way humans communicate for as long as man has existed. Big Fish tells its story with its big heart wide open and invites you to do the same, for when you do, oh the riches that will be yours.

It isn’t a musical that is easy to categorize. There is humor, but it isn’t an in-your-face comedy that comes with an overstuffed bag of tricks, and it isn’t the kind of drama that drags you through the pits of despair. The story is a simple one, about a father misunderstood by his son. Told with utter sincerity, it shows how roles reverse as time marches on and how one son is called to reexamine his long held beliefs at a critical turning point in his father’s life. Ultimately, it’s about how there will always be a little of our parents in us no matter how we try to argue that fact away. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Jeff Skowron takes on the role of Edward Bloom, adding another thoughtful portrayl to his expanding repertoire of complex characters. In this one he expresses a depth few actors are able to reach over a lifetime, let alone in the journey of two and a half hours. See it for his performance and the relationships he creates with Rebecca Johnson, who plays his wife, and Andrew Huber & Jude Mason who play his son, Will, at two different ages. His everyman persona is a natural fit for this ordinary character with an extraordinary ability to see the world differently. Vocally, he has never sounded better. Johnson too exhibits a maturity in her performance and a richness in her singing that is a beautiful addition to the show. Together they make this likable husband and wife come alive. In this family, Edward is the idealist and Will is the realist, which leaves Sandra to hold the space between like a beacon, always ready to light their way home.

If you are a lover of music and don’t know the score to Big Fish, as I didn’t, then this will be one of the biggest surprises of the show. Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, The Addams Family, A Little Princess, I Am Harvey Milk) is one of the most underrated musical theatre composers of our generation. His melodies are gorgeous and his lyrics reveal so much about a character that all you have to do is pay attention and they will show you everything you need to know. 

Big Fish’s score is full of songs that capture the essence of the characters, like “Be The Hero,” the song Edward sings to show his son that life can be so much more. Not only is it catchy enough that you’ll be singing it as you leave the theater but it gives the audience a window into Edward’s soul and his optimistic can-do attitude early on. “Fight the Dragons” is his creative explanation of why he spends so much time away and “Time Stops” captures the moment when he and Sandra first saw each other. If you’ve ever been in love at first sight, this one will remind you of that moment all over again. The way Lippa incorporates lines from William Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils into his song “Daffodils” is an incredibly personal touch for a character like Edward who wants to get the words right, and later, when Sandra sings “I Don’t Need a Roof” love comes home and the circle is complete for these two who have spent a lifetime together.

The show has many poignant moments but there is levity too. Characters come and go through Edward’s life like a storybook on parade: the mermaid (Marisa Field), the witch (Molly Garner), the giant (Timothy Hughes), the ringmaster (Gabriel Kalomas)… each one comes bearing a gift. Sometimes it’s humor. Sometimes it’s magic. Always it is more than you expect.

One interesting note about the production design; I found that while the costumes and lighting were bright, colorful and full of vitality, there is a spaciousness to the scenic design that is somewhat abstract in nature. Rather than show every detail of a location like you’d see in a photograph, it leaves the audience to fill in the blanks with their imagination. The abstract rendering may not quite fulfill the demands of attention spans that want everything bigger and louder and easier to grab at a glance but I found that it allowed me to breathe with the story in a way that might not have been possible otherwise.

So did I enjoy this musical? Absolutely…but I’m sentimental to the core, so a relationship story about love, life, and family will get me every time. Plus I grew up hearing my dad tell tall tales of his own so there is much about Big Fish that resonates with me before the story even begins. And thats the beauty of it. This one got me hook, line and sinker.

The cast of Musical Theatre West's Big Fish

Jeff Skowron and Jude Mason as Young Will

The Cast of Big Fish

Jeff Skowron and Timothy Hughes as Karl, the Giant

Jeff Skowron and Jude Mason

Jeff Skowron and Molly Garner as the Witch

Andrew Huber as Will Bloom

Gabriel Kalomas as Amos and Timothy Hughes
Book by John August
Musical and lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace and the Columbia Motion Picture written by John August
Original Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Directed by Larry Carpenter
Musical Direction by Matthew Smedal

October 31 – November 16, 2014
Musical Theatre West
Carpenter Performing Arts Center
6200 E. Atherton Street
Long Beach, CA 
Tickets: (562) 856-1999 x 4 or

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