A deeply conflicted father-son relationship, a husband and wife’s lifelong love, a spellbinding lead performance, a bunch of captivating supporting turns, some terrific dance sequences, an often quite gorgeous production design, and above all one of the most beautiful scores of recent years add up to an entertaining and often quite moving West Coast Premiere of Andrew Lippa and John August’s Big Fish at Long Beach’s Musical Theatre West.
Still, when a Broadway musical closes less than three months after its opening and fails to score a single Tony nomination or even a non-Equity tour, it is worth asking why.
Based on the 2003 Tim Burton movie of the same name, Big Fish recounts the life—and the sky-high tall tales—of traveling salesman Edward Bloom (Jeff Skowron), whose days and weeks away from home are but one reason for a decade-long estrangement from his now adult son Will (Andrew Huber). More significant in their decidedly conflicted relationship is Will’s conviction that the stories his father has told him of Dad’s Early Years are nothing more than the lies of a self-centered (and as we will soon learn) now dying man.
Like Burton’s film (itself based on Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions), Big Fish The Musical brings Edward’s stories to fantastical life while simultaneously exploring a father-son relationship with a soon-approaching deadline on healing.
Movie fans will recognize a number of these tall tales despite the considerable tweaking they have undergone from screen to stage.
There’s the Witch of Edward’s childhood (Molly Garner), whose ability to predict precisely how a person will die gives Edward the courage to face danger with the knowledge that this is not “how it ends.”
There’s also Karl (Timothy Hughes), the misunderstood giant who joins Edward on a journey that leads the mismatched duo to a circus run by ringmaster Amos Calloway (Gabriel Kalomas).
It’s at Amos’s traveling carnival that Edward first spots the beautiful Sandra Templeton (Rebecca Johnson), though it takes three years of unpaid circus labor—and a series of frustratingly vague monthly “clues”—for Amos to at last reveal Sandra’s name and whereabouts.
As movie fans will recall, it is at the college where Sandra is rather inconveniently engaged to Edward’s childhood nemesis Don Price (Zachary Ford) that our hero and Don duke it out for Sandra’s love—and you can guess who wins.
Anyone who’s seen Big Fish The Movie can imagine the challenges faced by its Broadway creative team in bringing August’s labyrinthine screenplay to the musical stage, and though the many changes from movie to musical might suggest a new writer’s hand, it is August himself who made those sometimes disappointing cuts and alterations.
Rather shockingly excised is the uncatchable Big Fish of the movie’s title, a monster-sized lake creature that prevented Edward’s presence at son’s birth. Gone too is Edward’s arrival by parachute in enemy North Korea and Siamese twins Ping and Jing (though they remain rather deceptively in the program cover art), along with cagey charmer Norther Winslow, who in the movie makes Edward his accomplice in bank robbery.
Most significantly missing is the mythical town of Spectre (and its magic along with it), Edward’s efforts to save it from destruction replaced by a plotline surrounding the rescue of his hometown of Ashton from a similar though less compelling fate.
Stylistically too, Big Fish The Musical may not live up to the expectations of those who’ve seen Big Fish The Movie, since much of the film’s success could be attributed to Tim Burton’s inimitable brand of cinematic wizardry, replaced here by somewhat less enchanted Broadway pizzazz. (As an example, Helena Bonham Carter’s horrifying old crone of a witch has become a glamorous young sorceress who might easily be the more dramatic cousin of Spamalot’s Lady Of The Lake.)
Notwithstanding all of the above (and a pair of so-so second act sequences: a comic book confrontation with a masked, scarlet body-suited Red Fang taking the place of Edward’s Korean War exploits and a fantasy Wild West “Showdown” between Edward and adult Will also not in the film), I must admit that Big Fish The Musical had me pretty much in its spell from its magical start to its deeply emotional finish.
Having seen a number of World Premiere musicals with scores ranging from less than memorable to downright forgettable, I am happy to report that not only are Andrew Lippa’s songs as “hummable” and “catchy” as show tunes get, they are the most gorgeous the composer of john & jen, The Wild Party, and The Addams Family has written, with lyrics to match. The ballads “Time Stops,” “Daffodils,” “Fight The Dragons,” “I Don’t Need A Roof,” and “How It Ends” deserve to become standards. Uptempo songs like “Be The Hero,” “Closer To Her,” and “Start Over” are as rousing as can be. Even specialty numbers like “Little Lamb From Alabama” and “Red, White, and True” have their charms.
Lippa’s songs add power and resonance both to Edward and Will’s love-hate relationship and to Edward and Sandra’s love of a lifetime, and with Skowron once again proving himself L.A.’s go-to performer for leading man versatility and brilliance, Huber making a stellar SoCal theater debut, and the always wonderful Johnson doing quite possibly her richest work to date, these storylines are in accomplished hands indeed on the Carpenter Performing Arts Center stage.
Supporting turns are all-around terrific, from young Jude Mason’s adorably spunky Young Will to Kristina Miller’s absolutely lovely Josephine (Will’s pregnant young fiancée) to Hughes’ genial ten-foot-tall Giant to Kalomas’ exuberant Amos to Ford’s suitably full-of-himself Don to Garner’s big-voiced Witch to Michelle Loucadoux’s delicately layered Jenny.
Add to that a Broadway-caliber ensemble featuring cameo turns by Marisa Field (Girl In The Water), Richard Bulda (Dr. Bennett), and Jake Saenz (Zacky Price) along with Caitlyn Calfas, Rachel Davis, Jessica Ernest, Aaron Felske, Brad Fitzgerald, Annie Hinkston, Morgan McGeehan, Lauren Newman, and Michael Starr and you’ve got a couldn’t-be-better cast. (It’s a pleasure for once to see an ensemble that doesn’t fade into anonymity behind costumes, masks, and wigs, with Felske and Starr deserving particular mention for their acrobatic athleticism and agility.)
Not having seen Big Fish in New York, I can’t say how far director Larry Carpenter and choreographer Peggy Hickey have veered from the Susan Stroman-directed-and-choreographed Broadway original. I can, however, affirm that Carpenter deserves highest marks for getting to Big Fish’s emotional center, and Hickey for one energetic dance sequence after another, whether it’s the Alabama Stomp or the most exciting dancing trees I’ve ever seen or the taptastic footwork in “Red, White, And True.”
Rising-star musical director Matthew Smedal insures Broadway-ready vocals in addition to conducting the production’s sensational pit orchestra provided by Los Angeles Musician’s Collective.
Another big plus offered by Musical Theatre West are William Ivey Long’s sensational Broadway costumes and Big Fish’s original Broadway sets (presumably by uncredited scenic designer Julian Crouch). Equally memorable are the expert contributions of Big Fish newbies: lighting designer Phil Monat, sound designer Brian Hsieh, projection designer John Infante, hair designer Michael Greene, and costumer Karen St. Pierre.
Kevin Clowes is technical director, Heidi Westrom is stage manager, and Mary Ritenhour is production manager/ASM.
Upcoming 62nd Season productions of South Pacific, Les Misérables, and Singin’ In The Rain—and their surefire box office draw to Musical Theatre West’s conservative older subscriber base—have doubtless made it possible for MTW to take a rare chance on something brand spanking new, and though Big Fish may not have had what it takes to settle in for a years-long run at the Neil Simon Theatre, musical theater lovers grown weary of too-often-produced “proven hits” can rejoice that Paul Garman and MTW have taken that chance.
If only to guarantee future chance-taking, here’s hoping that, flaws and all, Big Fish becomes the Big Hit locally that it didn’t get to be on The Great White Way.
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
November 1, 2104
Photos: Caught In The Moment Photography