By Manning Harris
“Big Fish,” a musical play, is running at Theatrical Outfit through December 18. It is based on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace; filmmaker Tim Burton made a movie version in 2003; then a musical version with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by John August opened on Broadway in the fall of 2013 for a short run.
In the film a young Edward Bloom, the leading character, says “There are some fish that cannot be caught. It’s not that they are faster or stronger than other fish; they’re just touched by something extra.”
I can only say that “Big Fish” must be touched by something extra: It appears to have lived a charmed life in its translation to film, by catching the interest of Tim Burton, who assembled an all-star cast (Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Billy Crudup) and garnering basically positive reviews.
Then came the transition to a Broadway musical and a very short run; Broadway audiences will simply not pay top dollar prices unless they’re virtually assured they’re seeing something special, something surefire. And here is where I must impart to you the unfortunate news: However well-intentioned this magical-realist fable is, it has a thin, unpersuasive, even forgettable quality that even a fine cast cannot overcome. The charmed life I mentioned has run out.
That said, director Tom Key has indeed assembled a stellar cast to breathe life into the proceedings: Travis Smith (so brilliant in his Suzi-winning role in Outfit and Aurora Theatre’s “Memphis” last year), Julissa Sabino, Laura Floyd, Naima Carter Russell (another Suzi-winner for “Memphis”), William S. Murphey, Randi Garza (unforgettable as Serenbe Playhouse’s “Evita”), Blake Burgess, Benjamin Davis, and others (it’s a large cast).
The setting is small-town Alabama. Edward Bloom (Mr. Smith) is a traveling salesman famous for his tall tales, which amuse almost everyone except his son Will (Ben Thorpe). Will is about to get married to Josephine (Julissa Sabino), and he tries to extract a promise from Edward that he will lay off the stories during his wedding, particularly one rather sensitive secret about Will and his bride-to-be. Does Dad comply? Let’s just say Will should never have told Edward his secret.
Author Daniel Wallace says “Edward is charming, and he is slippery.” That is a charitable way of looking at him. Another viewpoint is that Edward is an inveterate liar. Wallace (in an interview) goes on to say that a storyteller shares his tales with other people; a liar lies—to others, and to himself. Wallace and director Key (in program notes) clearly side with the storyteller. The audience must decide for themselves. These things are subjective.
For me, for whatever reasons, it seems Edward feels the need to enlarge his life. So we have a fortune-telling witch (Randi Garza), an amiable giant (Blake Burgess), and a mermaid/girl in the water (Caroline Arapoglou), all of whom are entertaining and colorful. There are more flashbacks and plot permutations than we have time to consider here.
My favorite song is “Be the Hero,” sung by Edward and the Ensemble. The songs are pleasant but not terribly memorable. S. Renee Clark is the music director; choreography is by Ricardo Aponte.
For me the saving grace of this show is the cast, attractive and magnetic. Actors not previously mentioned include Gabriel Bowles, Daniel Burns, Joseph Masson, Jimmica Collins, Alexandra Duncan, and Trevor Goble.
“Big Fish” is attractive to look at and a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours; it’s just not particularly dramatically compelling.
For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.