A Tail (or is that Tale) of Father and Son

Big Fish (MTW)userpic=theatre_musicalsAs you know by now, I love filling my iPod. So when new musicals by composers that I like (in this case, Andrew Lippa) come out, I tend to pick up their cast albums quickly. This happened in March, when I picked up the album for “Big Fish, a musical that opened and closed relatively quickly on Broadway (open in September 2013, closed in December 2013). When I discovered that Musical Theatre West (FB) was presenting the West Coast Premier of the musical, I decided that this was something that justified the drive to Long Beach, and picked up tickets. Hence, last night saw us down in Long Beach at the Carpenter Center for an opening weekend performance of “Big Fish“.

Before I dive into the review, a word about the venue. This was our first time at the Carpenter Center on the campus of CSULB. A beautiful venue with great sight lines, it has one major problems: the side entrances do not close. This lives you not in a great dark box where your imagination can take over, but with light in the side of your peripheral vision constantly reminding you that you are in a theatrical venue, and distracting you with visible movement of the ushers. Bad, bad design.

On the the musical itself. “Big Fish” features a book by John August, and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. It is based on the 2003 movie “Big Fish” which was also written by August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, which I have never seen. I emphasize that because reading the Wikipedia description of the movie and the summary of the musical makes clear that there are situations in the movie that were collapsed and combined into the musical, and if you come in expecting to see the movie on screen, you will likely be disappointed. This isn’t the movie, I rarely ever go to the movies, and I judge the stage production on its own merits. There, I’ve said it.

Big Fish, at its heart, is the story of fathers and sons. In this case, the father, Edward Bloom, is an seemingly ordinary traveling salesman in rural Alabama. He loves to tell far-fetched stories to his son Will of his life growing up; stories in which he was always the hero. These stories are meant to inspire Will to be the hero of his story, but children are often the opposite the parents. Will is a pragmatist who believes his father’s stories are fictions; falsehoods leading him astray. The musical opens on the occasion of Will’s wedding to Josephine, and the announcement that Will is to be a father. Shortly we also learn that Edward is dying. The musical then keeps moving back and forth between Edward’s story and Will’s attempts to find out the truth.

Edward’s stories border on the fantastic: Edward charms fish out of the lake. Edward meets a witch who tells him how he will die, giving him confidence because he knows the situation is not the one that will kill him. Edward meets a mermaid who teaches him about love. Edward is the hometown “big man” who always saves the city, destined to marry the head cheerleader (Jenny). Edward rescues his hometown from a giant (Karl), befriending him instead. Edward joins the circus, sees the girl he will marry (Sandra), and spends three years working for the circus owner, a werewolf, to get the clue to the girl. Edward saves a general from death.

On the other hand, Will has this image of what he thinks his father to be — especially as he wasn’t home a lot — and he does his best to confirm it. As Will is going through his father’s records in preparation for his passing, he discovers that his father co-signed a loan for an unknown woman in his hometown. Will believes this to be evidence of his father’s secret life — and secret mistress. When his father refuses to talk about it, Will goes to his father’s hometown, and discovers the truth. This ultimately changes Will’s view of his father, and his entire approach to raising his own child.

When one looks at a show, there are three distinct aspects to assess. The story, the performance, and the technical side. I’ve given you the summary of the story; as I’ve noted, those coming in expecting the movie may be disappointed. I found the story itself charming; presenting an interesting core notion of the relationship between father and son. How does a father convey his values to his children? Some (like me) try to do it by being a role model, living by example. In this case, Edward attempts to convey his value and life philosophy through his stories — his notion that one needs to be the hero in your life, and to recognize your heroism. By the end of the play, we learn that much of the stories are embellishments — but at the center of it all, Edward is still the hero he claims to be. In fact, he is more the hero than he was in the stories, for his actual heroism — his biggest act — was in the story he never told. Its an interesting life philosophy, and theatre is a great medium for transmitting broad philosophies. We saw this last week in Pippin, which gave the philosophical message that fulfillment for extraordinary people may often be found in the ordinary. We see it again this week, in proving that the ordinary people may be quietly extraordinary. It’s quite an interesting juxtaposition.

Before I delve into the performances themselves, let’s address the larger performance aspects: The direction and choreography. This production featured the Broadway sets and costumes, but not the Broadway director and choreographer (Susan Stroman). Reading the reviews of the Broadway production, one gets the idea that the disappointment was less in the show itself, and more in Stroman not being as creative as the critics expected her to be. This production of Big Fish was directed by Larry Carpenter, and choreographed by Peggy Hickey (FB). I didn’t particularly notice the direction — which is a good thing. Story and scene melded reasonably well into the next story and scene; the characterizations of the actors seemed reasonable and believable. Movement and dance integrated well into all of this, and there were many beautiful dances (which might have been based on Stroman). I think this is one advantage of regional theatre — you can move away from the baggage brought by the “name” creatives, and see the story for what it is.

In the lead performance tier in this show were Jeff Skowron (FB) as Edward Bloom and Andrew Huber/FB as Will Bloom. Although not a Norbert Leo Butz (Edward in the Broadway production), Skowron gave a very strong performance as Edward. He sang well, he danced well, and most importantly, he seemed to embody Edward and enjoy being the character. This was clear from the onset in his “Be The Hero” number. Similarly strong was Huber as Will, his son. Strong movement, strong singing (especially in “What’s Next”) — just very well done. Supporting these two men were Rebecca Johnson (FB) as Sandra Bloom, and Kristina Miller (FB) as Josephine Bloom. Sandra gave off the sort of charm that made you see why Edward fell in love with her at first sight, especially in her “Little Lamb from Alabama” number. Kristina was more supporting, but both worked well to ground the family side of the story. Also notable was Jude Mason as young Will.

Supporting the family were the many characters in Edward’s stories. These included Molly Garner (FB) as The Witch, Timothy Hughes as Karl (the Giant), Gabriel Kalomas (FB) as Amos Calloway, Zachary Ford (FB) as Don Price, Michelle Loucadoux (FB) as Jenny Hill, and Marisa Field/FB as the Mermaid (Girl in the Water). Notable performances here were Garner as the Witch, who had a spectacular dancing number in “I Know What You Want” and Hughes in “Out There on the Road”. Hughes’ dance was even more notable given that it was done on stilts!

Rounding out the cast were Richard Bulda (FB) as Dr. Bennet, Jake Saenz/FB as Zacky Price, and the members of the ensemble: Caitlyn Calfas (FB), Rachel Davis (FB,TW), Jessica Ernest (FB), Aaron Felske (FB), Brad Fitzgerald/FB, Annie Hinskton (FB), Morgan McGeehan (FB), Lauren Newman/FB, and Michael Starr (FB).

Musical direction was by Matthew Smedal (FB), who also led the uncredited orchestra of some unknown number of players. At least they got to be in the pit with the mermaid :-).

Turning to the technical side of the equation. Here’s where there were some problems with the show. I’ve already noted the distracting effects due to the building design not creating a fully-darkened box. There were also sound problems with the sound design/mixing of Brian Hsieh — at times mics had incorrect volume, and at times there was a fair amount of static. There were also some large thumps in the second act as scenery was moved. Other technical areas were good: the lighting design of Phil Monat worked well to create the mood; the sets (from the original Broadway production, designed by Julian Crouch) established place well and were reasonably flexible; the costume design of William Ivey Long (again, from the original Broadway production, adjusted locally by Karen St. Pierre) were clever and inventive (especially for the Witch’s dance and the Giant); and the properties (by Melanie Cavaness and Gretchen Morales) worked well. Also very inventive were the projections of John Infante. Additional technical credits: Hair Design – Michael Greene; Technical Director – Kevin Clowes; Stage Manager – Heidi Westrom (FB);   Production Stage Manager/ASM – Mary Ridenhour; Production Assistant – Anna Katharine Mantz; Executive Director/Producer – Paul Garman.

Big Fish” continues at Musical Theatre West until November 16. Tickets are available through MTW; discount tickets are available through Goldstar.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  November is back to busy. Tonight brings a special tribute to Stan Freberg at the Egyptian Theater.  Next weekend brings “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sun 11/9 (shifting to avoid ACSAC and opening night), a trip out to Orange Empire Railway Museum to see my buddy Thomas on 11/11,  “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB) on Sat 11/15, the Nottingham Festival on Sun 11/16, and “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB) on Sat 11/29. I may also see some theatre when I visit my daughter Erin in Berkeley between 11/20 and 11/26. Right now, I’ve scheduled “Harvey” at Palo Alto Players (FB) in Palo Alto for Friday 11/21, and I’m looking at The Immigrant at Tabard Theatre (FB) in San Jose, , “Rhinocerous” at the UC Berkeley Theatre Department (FB), or possibly a show at UC Santa Cruz featuring a family friend in the cast or crew. [As a PS on the above: I’m trying to figure out a way to balance “The Immigrant”, the show at Santa Cruz, and Dickens Fair on one weekend. Am I crazy?] As for December, I just ticketed “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim on 12/20, and we’ll probably go see Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Nobel Middle School just before ACSAC. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.