Depending on your outlook and the way you see the world, the Broadway musical Big Fish with Andrew Lippa’s pleasantly hummable score, now playing at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until June 30, can be about several things. On the surface, it’s about an Alabama farm boy who wanted to see the world, if, by the definition of the word ‘world’ you mean neighboring, southern states. It could also be a fairy tale about a man who tells life-affirming fairy tales. Or, more realistically, it could be about a traveling salesman, neglectful as a husband and a father who made stuff up when he finally returned home. “You weren’t there,” complains son to dad. “You were never there.”
That last summary may sound a lot less savory for a bright, colorful, and hugely inventive comedy musical, but in truth, Edward Bloom (Chad Campbell) was an awful parent, one who was aware of his negligence. When he finally returned home between bouts of traveling sales he would tell stories of his adventures, ones full of magical, colorful characters where he, Edward Bloom, was the center of the tale. That may be fine for a wild-eyed child who misses his father and thrilled upon dad’s eventual return, but as an adult, Will Bloom (Nicholas Gunnell) is no longer buying it.
During the opening sequence, young Will is about to marry. It’s the pre-wedding ceremony, the night before the actual service, but, as seen from dad’s humorous sense of skewed logic, he doesn’t get the idea of a rehearsal dinner. “People been eating dinners all their lives,” he announces. “Why the practice?”
While skipping rocks on a nearby river, something the two used to do when Will was a boy, the now grown young man has one request of his father. During the wedding, Edward is not to make a speech or tell any of his fanciful stories. “No stories, no jokes, no anecdotes,” his son insists. Dad agrees, but once at the celebration, he can’t help himself. Much to the annoyance of Will (and to us because you know it’s exactly what he’s not supposed to do), Edward takes the microphone, makes a speech, one that he even acknowledges he’s breaking a promise and reveals a secret that was never his to reveal.
Author Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel – full title: Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions – is a great read, one where the imagery of a fruitful imagination leaps like one of those Alabama flying fish off the page. Tim Burton’s 2003 film version, where Edward’s exaggerated stories were fully enacted, spelled things out and did all the imaginary work for us. The live musical falls somewhere in-between. The stories, the fanciful events, and their characters come alive, but by default because of being a live-stage production, the imagination and a sense of having to automatically suspend a disbelief make the musical the best forum for author Wallace’s tale.
Plus, with this local valley presentation, that imaginative approach in Hale Centre Theatre’s production is forced to take one creative step further. Adapting a show, any show, for theatre-in-the-round creates a set of challenges not ordinarily faced when presenting a production on a more traditional proscenium arch staging. Of course, a major benefit is not having to work on painted flats while creating and moving scenery, but the challenge is how to successfully transport an audience into the world it’s presenting when clearly what you’re watching is artificial, one that you can practically reach out and touch if seated in the front row.
As repeatedly proven, particularly with its annual A Christmas Carol production, Hale has successfully cornered the market on elevating audience’s minds out of the round and into the center of the story. In The Drowsy Chaperone, while seated surrounding the action, Hale audiences were placed right in the middle of the lead character’s mind, as if we were walking among those imaginary characters with him and sharing his fantasy, an effect that simply can’t be achieved on a traditional stage. With Big Fish performed in the round, director and choreographer Cambrian James achieves the same effect; the audience becomes an all-observing, silent character in the show. When players enact their moments and sing their songs in the aisles around us as well as before us, those flights of fanciful events where giants, werewolves, and mermaids emerge from the shadows of Edward’s mind all seem to walk not just before us, but among and around us.
Of course, it helps when the ensemble is as well cast with voices as good as they are here – Edward may be a braggart, but Chad Campbell makes him thoroughly likable throughout – plus everything from Mary Atkinson’s costumes to Tim Dietlein’s atmospheric lighting design all adds to a first-class, musical production. But it’s James’s direction and inventive staging that makes the show come alive. During the scene in the park where father and son throw ball, the surrounding area is constantly on the move as roller skaters, joggers, moms with baby buggies pass by, all while a young girl sits by the side, writing observances, or maybe poems in a notepad. It’s as if we’re all there, seated on a park bench, observing life in a public park on a typical summer’s day, eavesdropping on a conversation between Edward and son. That same sense of creative magic that puts us right in the middle of Edward’s mind occurs later when cowboys and saloon gals climb out of the western movie showing on TV and suddenly fill the bedroom.
If the message of Big Fish is that if you can reinvent yourself by being anyone you want to be, or you can have anything you truly desire just by revising stories of your past and creating new, imaginative ones – the show begins and ends with the song Be A Hero which basically teaches just that – then the meaning behind the musical fails, but if you take to heart the moment when Karl the Giant (Kasey Ray) tells Edward that real knowledge is to know the length of your ignorance, then a valuable lesson is learned.
On Broadway, the Susan Stroman production closed after only three months. Audiences dropped sooner than expected and backers cut their losses. But Big Fish has found its audience in regional productions around the country, which, with a score as tuneful as this and writer John August’s script as funny as it is, makes this Hale Centre Theatre musical production more entertaining than the novel (personal choice) and far more satisfying than the Tim Burton film.
Big Fish continues at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until June 30
Pictures Courtesy of Nick Woodward-Shaw