Big Fish The Musical may have floundered on Broadway two years back, but it’s the furthest thing from a flop given the emotional depth and heart of Steven Glaudini’s direction and the abundant pizzazz of Karl Warden’s choreography at Vista’s Moonlight Amphitheatre.
Based on the 2003 Tim Burton movie of the same name, Andrew Lippa and John August’s Big Fish recounts both the life and the sky-high tall tales of traveling salesman Edward Bloom (Josh Adamson), whose days and weeks away from home are but one reason for a decade-long estrangement from his now adult son Will (Patrick Cummings), recently engaged to the secretly pregnant Josephine (Andi Davis).
More significant in their decidedly conflicted relationship is Will’s conviction that the stories his father told him of Dad’s Early Years (Elliot Weaver plays Will as a child) were 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 most of the musical’s cast of characters.
There’s the Witch of Edward’s childhood (Shirley Johnston), whose ability to predict precisely how a person will die gives Edward the courage to face danger with the knowledge that this is not yet “how it ends.”
There’s also girl-next-door Jenny Hill (Katie Whalley Banville), whom our hero leaves behind when he meets a misunderstood giant named Karl (Dustin Ceithamer) and sets off with his new companion on a journey that leads them to a circus run by ringmaster Amos Calloway (Cris O’Bryon).
It’s at Amos’s traveling carnival that Edward first spots the beautiful Sandra Templeton (Bets Malone), 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.
Unfortunately, once our young hero has finally tracked down the girl of his dreams, he finds her inconveniently engaged to his childhood nemesis Don Price (Johnny Fletcher), and before long the two romantic rivals are duking it out for Sandra’s love.
Diehard fans of Big Fish The Movie should be advised not to expect Big Fish The Musical to replicate that film’s uniquely magical style, or for August’s book to be a carbon copy of his screenplay.
First of all, Big Fish The Musical substitutes Broadway pizzazz for Tim Burton’s inimitable brand of cinematic wizardry. Take for instance the film’s horrifying old crone of a witch turned here into a sorceress so glamorous, she might easily be the more dramatic cousin of Spamalot’s Lady Of The Lake.
Be aware too that you won’t be visiting the mythical, mythical town of Spectre or seeing Edward’s arrival by parachute in enemy North Korea or meeting Siamese twins Ping and Jing or cagey charmer Norther Winslow, their places taken by Edward’s endangered hometown, a comic book confrontation with a masked and scarlet body-suited “Red Fang,” and a fantasy Wild West shootout between Edward and adult Will.
Still, despite changes not necessarily for the better and an episodic format recalling Homer’s Iliad or Voltaire’s Candide or Cervante’s Don Quixote that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Big Fish succeeds big at Moonlight thanks in great part to director Glaudini’s understanding that Edward’s life story is at its heart not merely a collection of “fish tales” but rather the profoundly moving saga of a husband and wife’s lifelong love and a lifelong parent-child estrangement in dire need of healing,
Factor in Adamson’s, Cummings’, and Malone’s emotional excavations into a father’s complexities, a son’s resentments, and a wife-and-mother’s unconditional love and it’s hard to imagine anyone not being drawn into their story or remaining dry-eyed during the musical’s profoundly moving last half hour.
Additional credit for Big Fish’s impact and resonance goes to Lippa’s score, the most gorgeous yet from the composer of john & jen, The Wild Party, and The Addams Family, with lyrics to match, songs that add power and resonance to Edward and Will’s love-hate relationship and to Edward and Sandra’s love-of-a-lifetime, most especially the ballads “Time Stops,” “Daffodils,” “Fight The Dragons,” and “I Don’t Need A Roof.” As for Edward’s 11th-hour “How It Ends,” I defy to hear Adamson sing it and not become a sobbing wreck.
Add to this Lippa’s rousing uptempo songs (“Be The Hero,” “Closer To Her,” and “Start Over”) and vaudeville-style numbers (“Little Lamb From Alabama” and “Red, White, and True”) and you’ve got music and lyrics that ought to have scored their writer a Tony nomination and given eventual Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (whose Bridges Of Madison County ran only a month longer than Big Fish) a run for his money.
Under Glaudini’s inspired direction, the cast assembled for Moonlight Stage Productions may well be Big Fish’s finest to date, beginning with leading man extraordinaire Adamson, who vanishes as thoroughly into Edward Bloom as he did last year into Catch Me If You Can’s Carl Hanraty, with the added challenge of making us believe he is old and dying one minute, then young and brimming with life the next.
Vista native (and SoCal musical theater superstar) Malone once again amazes, investing Sandra with oceans of wifely/maternal love and, like Adamson, managing to go from teen to grandparent-to-be and back again.
As for Cummings, the recent New York-to-L.A. transplant more than fulfills the promise displayed earlier this year in Musical Theatre West’s South Pacific, both in his nuanced acting and in vocals that match those of his more seasoned costars.
Supporting players are uniformly excellent, beginning with Davis’s richly-felt Josephine, the latest from one of SoCal’s most stunning stars on the rise.
A memorable Ceithamer gives us a boomingly voiced 12-foot-tall gentle giant of a Karl, pint-sized charmer Weaver proves himself a song-and-dance-star-in-training as Young Will, O’Bryon makes for a howlingly good Amos, Johnston’s Witch is big-voiced and Vegas-ready, and Banville’s Jenny positively glows.
Big Fish’s ensemble could hardly be more splendid, highlighted by topnotch featured turns by Fletcher, assistant to the choreographer Kim Taylor (Girl In The Water), Ralph Johnson (Dr. Bennett), Juan Caballer (Zacky Price), and Amy Beth Batchelor and Caitlyn Calfas (Alabama Lambs), along with Max Cadillac, Maggie Darago, Chaz Feuerstine, Danny Hansen, Kyle Hawk, Jordan Kimmel, Danielle Levas, and Joy Newbegin. (Unlike last month’s Shrek, this is one ensemble that doesn’t fade into anonymity behind costumes, masks, and wigs.)
In addition to director Glaudini and his fabulous cast, the other undisputed star of Moonlight’s Big Fish is choreographic whiz Karl Warden, whose dance steps dazzle in one production number after another. (If only production stills did not shortchange both choreographer and triple-threat ensemble by neglecting to feature shots of Warden’s high-energy choreography—or most of William Ivey Long’s equally sensational original Broadway costumes for that matter.)
John Infante’s animated hi-def projections take us from locale to locale and often quite gorgeously so, though it can be distracting to see these projections not just onscreen but reflecting off actors as well. (Sets and costumes are provided by Musical Theatre West.)
Lighting design is once again in the gifted charge of Jean-Yves Tessier with an equally skillful sound design provided by Chris Luessmann.
Superlatives are in order too for musical director/conductor Elan McMahan and Moonlight’s Broadway-caliber pit orchestra.
Costumes are coordinated and executed for Moonlight by Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd, and Carlotta Malone. Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager and Eden Michel and Nathan Harper are assistant stage managers.
It took a leap of faith for Moonlight Stage Productions to program a lesser-known musical into its season of bigger-name shows, but like last year’s Catch Me If You Can, Big Fish proves that a show doesn’t have to have a long Broadway run to merit a bright future on American regional stages.
Big Fish gives Moonlight a whopper of a hit to bring Summer 2015 to an Alabama Stomp-worthy close.
Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.
September 12, 2104
Photos: Ken Jacques Photography