Big Fish has never been the flashiest of musicals. It had its origin in a slim volume of stories by Daniel Wallace, all of which center on the larger-than-life character of Edward Bloom, the “big fish” of the title, whose self-professed exploits far exceed the limits of the small Alabama town he calls home. And that, the musical tells us, is the problem: Bloom’s life has played out through entertaining anecdotes that always cast him as the hero of his story, and that has led his now-adult son Will (who for some reason has not inherited his father’s penchant for tall tales) to believe that he doesn’t really know the man at all. The musical is set up as a conflict between a fabulist father and a straightlaced, literal-minded son who is desperate to know what is behind his father’s lies, especially as the older man is now dying of cancer.
Edward’s life, according to his stories, has been a series of adventures. His repertoire doesn’t contain only the standard tall tales like catching the biggest carp ever seen in their river; his anecdotes feature a mermaid, a witch, a werewolf, and a giant, among other fantasy characters. There is also the story of a three-year stint working for free in a circus so that the ringmaster will provide clues about the identity of a girl he once saw there with whom he fell deeply in love at first sight. Will sees all of this as evidence that, if his father is great at anything, it’s being the world’s biggest liar (at least before the coming of George Santos). And now, with his own son on the way, Will wants to try to separate the truth from the fiction.
In a way, that is what Big Fish is all about: the way our lives inevitably interweave truth and fiction as we remember and embellish them to the point where, ultimately, what matters is not literal truth but the emotional gift of the stories themselves.
Director Henry Godinez clearly understands this. Working with scenic designer Collette Pollard, his version of Big Fish, designed for a Marriott Theatre stage that is simultaneously quietly intimate and dramatically bold, invites the audience into a narrative that twists and weaves seamlessly between the real moments of the emotional “now” of Edward’s family and flashbacks that show us his stories. But the reality of a theatre-in-the-round staging is that nothing we will see can in any way be “realistic,” a fact that Godinez uses to great advantage as he memorably stages Edward’s fantastic memories. Scenes depicting a doomed town by having its citizens carry dollhouse replicas of its buildings are illustrative of this design: the comically adorable visual utterly removes us from anything realistic, allowing us to focus on the emotions of the moment instead of following Will into the land of Doubt.
Godinez’s cast could not be better. Alexander Gemignani brings Edward the emotional depth that the character needs in order to be able to sell both the exaggerations of his stories and the honest power of his love. One key moment comes in the circus scene: Edward walks in while a local girl group is auditioning and, as he sings, “Time Stops” as he falls completely and hopelessly in love with the woman who will become his wife. Heidi Kettenring, given less development to work with for Sandra Bloom, nonetheless makes us fall in love with her as well, and Godinez wisely allows her to express herself in the lovely “Magic In The Man,” a song that was actually cut from the show’s brief stint on Broadway.
Will (Michael Kurowski) is stuck in his one-dimensional disgust for his father much of the time, but Kurowski’s rendition of the plaintive “Stranger” is, all by itself, enough to make his late comprehension of Edward’s fuller character believable. (That and his wife, played by Lydia Burke, who is completely drawn into Edward’s world, intuitively understanding that her husband is missing the whole point of the stories.)
One thing that Godinez sacrifices with this version of the musical is the power of a large cast. Though I have seen this show with casts in the twenties, Godinez here opts for a small ensemble; eight actors play all of the remaining parts. Honestly, I would have thought that would hurt the production, especially in multi-character scenes such as the one at the circus, (which, by the way, involves some fun lighting by Jesse Klug). What it actually does, however, is force our focus to the important people. I happened to have a Bloom’s-eye view here—Godinez does a great job overall with the staging, making sure every side of the 360° audience can see what is important to see, but he does have to keep this scene in one place due to its complicated nature—and I saw what he sees as his vision is inexorably drawn to Sandra’s “Alabama Lamb.” There is magic in the scene as well as the man.
Every member of the small ensemble has the opportunity to have fun with key roles (except perhaps the much younger version of Will, played by either William Daly or Archer Geye, who really is not given much to do). Brandon Dahlquist’s emptyheaded jock Don Price is wonderful (and not overdone, which would not have helped in a late character change). Lucy Godinez absolutely shines as the mysterious Witch whose forecast, when he was still in high school, of how Edward will die gives him the emotional strength to take chances in life. (“This is not how it ends,” he tells people who are concerned about him.)
Emma Rosenthal is a perfect circus master; some I have seen are too slimy, and of course she is duping this guy by stringing him along for his free labor, but their every interaction reveals Amos as a three-dimensional person. Allison Sill is a memorably genuine Jenny Hill, the high school sweetheart that Edward left behind the night he first saw Sandra. Jonah D. Winston, with his basso profundo voice, is a perfect Karl the Giant. Ayana Strutz, as the Girl in the Water and a circus performer, is as striking as Ariana DeBose in the orginal cast of Hamilton—taking a tiny role and turning it into a showy one. And Christopher Kale Jones, whose key role is Don’s tag-along brother Zacky, has several outstanding moments with excellent line readings.
I have always had a fondness for Big Fish, whether the book, the memorable Tim Burton movie with Albert Finney and Billy Crudup in the main roles, or the musical. I have enjoyed it every time, but I think this is the best version of this musical I have ever seen. If this one cannot draw you into the world of this misunderstood but always well-intentioned man, you might want to check your pulse for signs of life. If it does, though, you will understand the need to “Be the Hero” of your own story.
Tickets for Big Fish are available from Marriott Theatre and at 888-729-4718. It is playing at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, through March 19. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.