“Big Fish” tells a whale of a tale at “The Players”
“Big Fish” is now making a splash at The Players. The musical’s a tale about stories and storytellers—and what slips between the cracks of fantasy and reality. Call it metafictional or call it Southern Gothic. It’s a whopper of a story, and a slippery one.
Simply put, Edward Bloom (Michael Wogaman) is a salesman and a Southern fried storyteller. He tells his son tall tales of mermaids, giants, werewolves and witches—and dad’s the hero every time. Will (Tristan Martin) loves it as a kid, gets sick of it as an adult. He starts to think his yarn-spinning dad (who was usually on the road) is a fiction. He suspects the real man behind the stories is a stranger—and not so heroic. When Edward’s diagnosed with inoperable cancer, Will revisits the scene of his tall tales. He finds a truth behind each one—mightily stretched, but truth nonetheless. He also discovers his father kept his life’s most heroic chapter to himself.
Director Michael Newton-Brown throws you into this double-exposed vision of reality and fantasy with an inventive mix of puppets, rear projection and circus arts—including a giant who does a decent job walking on stilts.
Strong performances include the Odysseus/Telemachus pair of Wogaman’s unflappable Edward and Martin’s brooding but hopeful Will; Anne Marshman and Yvonne Clark’s portrayals of their respective, infinitely supportive wives; Eliza Lipton as the equanimous, jilted girlfriend of Edward’s youth; Bill Sarazen as the lycanthropic circus magnate; and Daniel Pelissier as Karl, the aforementioned stilt-walking giant, (who, coincidentally, sounds a lot like Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl character in “Sling Blade.”) It’s a small cast production, although it sometimes looks like there’s an army onstage.
Newton-Brown’s creative set resembles the belly of a whale—a series of vaulted ribs leading to the back of the stage. He suggests various locations with a few props within that cavernous expanse. Tim Beltley’s costumes range from sweet home Alabama to the flash and filigree of circus life. Brian Finnerty's high-energy choreography is genuine fun—with some acrobatics and other bits of circus business thrown in for good measure. Musical director Rebecca Heintz does a great job with the material she has to work with.
It all adds up to a moving story. (Not to get all sentimental, but I made a point of visiting my storytelling Southern father immediately.) The musical has heart. And about 15 or 20 minutes of fatty tissue that might be bad for a cardiac stress test.
Like “the Odyssey” and “The Wizard of Oz,” “Big Fish” is essentially a road show. The musical takes its sweet time before finally hits the road. Which may be a symptom of its complicated provenance. It’s an adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel and Tim Burton’s movie. John August wrote the movie’s script and the musical’s book. Andrew Lippa wrote the music and lyrics.
Somewhere along the line, this multi-fathered adaptation of an adaptation forgot that a story—however archetypal it may be—has to move. The movie breezed you into Edward Bloom’s odyssey. The musical gets mired in backstory before his amazing stories begin. The overwrought songs also constantly interrupt those tales.
August writes snappy character specific dialog. But rather than advance the story, Lippa’s music often gets in the way. His lush syrupy score has a few country moments, but is mostly generic, contemporary Broadway fare—pushing your emotional buttons as only a Broadway musical can do, and slowing down the action like a river of molasses.
Despite a few pacing problems, it’s a great story. Fishermen, families and everyone who’s ever had a father should get a kick out of it. Once you get past the set-up, the Southern Gothic odyssey at the heart of the story is either touching or hilarious—and sometimes both. At the end, the fabulist who began as a man ends up as a myth. The Players does justice to his magical transformation.
IF YOU GO
“Big Fish” runs through March 5, at The Players Centre for Performing Arts, 838 N. Tamiami Trail. Call 365-2494.
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