By Pat Launer
Fathers and sons. They’ve been in conflict (and competition?) since fatherhood first began. And inevitably, each generation feels misunderstood by the other.
The struggle is heightened in the case of Edward and Will Bloom. Eddie is a “Big Fish” in the small pond of Ashton, Alabama. But he wants to appear even bigger. So he tells his son fantastical stories of his adventures on the road (he’s a traveling salesman) and on the river.
Like the time he followed the biggest fish imaginable (“some fish cannot be caught”) and got swallowed up inside it, and he could only escape using gold. He sacrifices his wedding rign — the one he used to pledge love and loyalty to his idolized wife (with whom he fell madly, hopelessly in love at first sight, and never even talked to her till three years later, when he finally found her again and immediately proposed).
“Big Fish” is full of these ‘fish tales.’
Will, who’s about to become a father, isn’t buying any of it. But, after a lifetime of doubts and clashes (and many flashbacks), he comes to a life-changing realization: “I thought you were trying to impress me. But you were trying to inspire me.”
Nice sentiment, though it doesn’t fully excuse an absent father who was never there for the important moments in his son’s life.
Ultimately (this is a musical, after all), the two bond — and just in the nick of time (I won’t ruin the storyline by saying more).
The show, with music & lyrics by Andrew Lippa, and book by John August, is based on the 1998 novel of the same name, by Daniel Wallace, and the subsequent 2003 movie, written by August and directed by Tim Burton.
Interestingly, there are several versions of the musical. The original, the pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago, is one. Then there’s the big, splashy Broadway version, with some different songs and differently placed focus. That’s the one Moonlight Stage Productions used two years ago for its huge and elaborate production.
But there’s also a pared-down, small-scale version, often referred to as the “12 chairs” version, designed for just 12 actors. That’s the version Lamb’s Players Theatre is employing.
Without all the high-tech bells and whistles, this production is magical, in its way; Jeanne Reith’s highly imaginative costumes help, as do the projections by Michael McKeon and Patrick Duffy.
Though the show is intimate, and wears its big heart unmistakably on its sleeve, which is perfect for Lamb’s, it hadn’t quite gelled on opening night.
The first act especially felt forced, and not organic. The relationships — and some of the singing. seemed strained.
By the second act, it seemed as though everyone had settled down and settled in. There was more emotional honesty, less striving.
The two strongest scenes are the small, private ones between father and son, both on a bed, in a pillow fight (with Young Will, capably played by Gavin Reid August) and much later, with older Will on a fantasy journey with his Dad.
Brandon Joel Maier, a graduate of the San Diego State University MFA program in musical theater, is affable and vocally flexible as Edward, but he may not be expansive and comical enough for this larger-than-life, charismatic character. This Eddie feels kind of grounded (not, as he should a little airborne), like a mensch with shaggy dog (fish?) stories to tell — endlessly, even at inopportune times. Even when his son begs him not to.
As that grown-up son, Michael Cusimano comes into his own in the second act, and has some stellar moments, both emotionally and vocally (especially in his final song, the reprise of “Be The Hero”).
Kelsey Venter is solid, vocally and dramatically, as Edward’s adoring and devoted wife. Anise Ritchie is wonderful as The Witch.
All the voices are strong, and the fine seven-piece band (with musical direction by G. Scott Lacy) keeps the proceedings lively. Not all the songs are melodic, but the earnest country-tinged ballads and tunefully, heartfelt or witty numbers, are more memorable (“Time Stops,” “Fight the Dragons,” “I Don’t Need a Roof,” “Be the Hero”).
But the play itself, especially in this incarnation, has loose threads and unresolved issues. The pace isn’t as fleet-footed as it should be (direction by Deborah Gilmour Smyth) and the choreography (Javier Velasco) is lackluster. There seems to be a push-pull here between keeping it simple and trying to make it intricate and florid at the same time. This creates a tonal uncertainty; sometimes the production feels very community theater, and at other times, it has the grandeur (however low-key) of a regular Lamb’s offering.
Something missing in both play and production kept me from being fully engaged and deeply affected (for the record, I shed a few tears at the Moonlight production).
Perhaps the fluidity and cohesion will come together over the course of the run. Opening nights are tricky. And in this case, smaller isn’t always better.
- “Big Fish” runs through July 30, at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue in Coronado
- Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees Wednesday at 2:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Running Time: 2 hrs. 20 min.
- Tickets ($324-$74) are at 619-437-6000 or lambsplayers.org
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.