note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel, “Big Fish,” left such an emotional impact on the public, Hollywood jumped on its popularity and adapted it for the screen in 2003, successfully directed by Tim Burton.
Prolific book writer John August was also deeply moved by this story of a father who tells tall tales and his realistic-thinking son, who yearns for his dad to tell him the truth, instead of his spectacular fabrications. August, known for his film, “Charlie’s Angels,” and others, teamed up with celebrated composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa, and together, they adapted “Big Fish” into a spectacular musical for the Broadway stage. Multi-award winner Lippa, no stranger to fame, with his creations of “I Am Harvey Milk” oratorio, “The Wild Party,”and music-lyrics for funky “The Addams Family,” and other notables, premiered the musical on Broadway in 2013, but it only lasted three months.
After much rethinking and re-tweaking, the duo has created a more intimate version, reducing the cast from 21 to 12, and musicians from 14 to 6. They came to Boston in February to work with SpeakEasy Stage Company’s multi-award winning sage, founder, producing artistic director-director Paul Daigneault (think “The Color Purple, “In the Heights,” and gut-wrenching “Next to Normal”), and the results of this newly-imagined, New England premiere of “Big Fish” are magnificent. Matthew Stern and his musicians create marvelous dramatic accompaniment, and Jenna MacFarland Lord’s imaginative double-arched set, coupled with Karen Perlow’s lighting, David Reiffel’s sound design and Seaghan McKay’s fabulous projections, blend fantasy with reality.
Daigneault also gathered Boston’s outstanding performers in this two-act, 2-1/4-hour stirring musical story of a loving father, devoted wife and mother, and their estranged son, that leaves theatergoers nostalgically reflecting on their own families.
Brookline’s Steven Goldstein, (who has performed in films, on stage, in several renowned operas and teaches at the New England Conservatory’s Opera Department), makes believers of us all in his stirring portrayal of Alabaman traveling salesman, Ed Bloom. Although Ed isn’t home very much through the years, he regales his son Will with hyperbolic stories, melodically instructing the boy to “Be the Hero of Your Story,” like he is. He tells the eager child (delightful Jackson Daley) how he caught a huge fish, doing the Alabama stomp; met a mermaid (Sarah Crane); and consulted with a witch (fabulous Aubin Wise) in a magical forest, who, with her magic, green crystal ball, revealed how he dies. Together, father and son playfully “Fight the Dragons”.
Ed’s stories become more colossal as young Will grows. He fends off a giant (crowd-pleaser Lee David Skunes) who’s terrorizing Ed’s small hometown and gives the intelligent giant Karl a happier, fruitful life with the circus. Circus owner Amos Calloway (inimitable Will McGarrahan) secretly - and metaphorically - turns into a harmless werewolf. McGarrahan also portrays the Blooms‘ friend and trusted family physician, whose sad task is to diagnose Ed’s terminal cancer.
Ed’s story of his long courtship and love of his wife, Sandra, is what leads him to the circus and working there for three years, trying to gain information about her. When he pursues her at her university, Sandra knows “There’s Magic in the Man,” and they sing a charming duet during his dazzling shower of her favorite yellow daffodils. Aimee Doherty delivers a thoughtful, moving performance as Sandra, whose love is boundless, despite his absences and tale-spinning. Equally charmed by Ed is Will’s new wife, Josephine (Katie Clark), with whom he has a son. Although Will asks Ed to please not tell any stories or do a toast at the wedding, Ed can’t resist, raising Will’s ire.
The gap between father and son widens, which grown-up Will melodically laments in “Strangers”. Actor Sam Simahk’s voice soars, raising theatergoers’ goose bumps. When Will learns that Ed is dying and he’s about to become a father himself, he desperately seeks the truth about his father, setting out on a heat-thumping quest, where he realizes Ed truly is the hero of his fables. In fact, the truth is more sensational than Ed’s imaginings, which he spun for Will’s and others’ enjoyment.
Nicely rounding out the cast are Sara Schoch, Daniel Scott Walton and Zaven Ovian.
Be sure to see “Big Fish”. I’m guessing this new, Boston-based version will head back to Broadway, and you can say you saw it first.
BOX INFO: New England premiere of two-act musical, in an intimate version, re-imagined by book writer John August and composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa, presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, featuring a Boston stand-out cast and six-piece band, through April 11, in Boston Center for the Arts Virginia Wimberly Theatre, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. SpeakEasy Performances: Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m., also Thursday, April 9, at 2 p.m. Ticket start at $25.; student, senior, age 25-under discounts. Call 617-933-8600, visit www.SpeakEasyStage.com or www.BostonTheatreScene.com.