As is so often the case, the challenge of staging a big musical in the tiny confines of the Hayes Theatre has inspired the creative team of Big Fish to come up with inventive staging solutions, which add to the whimsical charm of what could so easily be an overblown show. Produced by RPG Productions in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, Big Fish is staged with a simplicity that suits the magical themes of the musical. It also radiates a great deal of love from everyone involved, including the terrific, hard-working cast.
Philip Lowe and Brittanie Shipway in Big Fish. Photos © Kate Williams
Adapted from the 2003 film directed by Tim Burton and Daniel Wallace’s 1998 book Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, the musical features music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family) and a book by John August who also wrote the screenplay for the film. Big Fish premiered on Broadway in 2013 in a splashy, big-budget production, which received mixed reviews and failed to capture the public imagination, closing after just three months. The production at the Hayes uses the so-called 12 Chairs Version, revised for a much smaller cast with a few song changes.
The plot centres around a conflicted father-son relationship between Edward Bloom – who is at the heart of the production – and his son Will. Edward is a travelling salesman in Alabama who tells fantastical tall tales about his life, which include among other things, a mermaid, a giant, a werewolf, a witch and time standing still when Edward first glimpses the girl he wants to marry. Embellishing reality to add colour to his hum-drum life and be a hero to himself and to his son, Edward has spun his magical yarns for as long as Will can remember. But when Edward ignores his son’s request not to tell stories at his wedding to Josephine, Will has finally had enough and a rift develops between them. However, when Edward gets sick, Will, now approaching fatherhood himself, wants to know the truth and can’t help wondering whether his father’s fabrications hide a dark secret.
Big Fish moves between time frames. We see Edward telling stories to Will as a young boy, and arguing the toss with the grown-up Will. We also see Edward as a boy and young man himself, as his fantastical stories come to life on stage. In the film, Edward was played by two actors – Ewan McGregor as the young adventurer and Albert Finney as the older Edward facing death. In the musical one actor plays both, while two actors play Will as a boy and as a man.
Lippa’s score includes folk, country and Broadway influences. It’s tuneful even if it’s not wildly distinctive. Some melodies feel a little overblown and the lyrics verge on the schmaltzy. However, there are some lovely songs notably Will’s soaring Stranger and a touching ballad called I Don’t Need a Roof sung by Edward’s wife Sandra. There’s also a comic song for Sandra and two friends called Little Lamb from Alabama, which features suitably perky choreography by Cameron Mitchell. Towards the end, you can feel the emotional buttons being pushed, but the production and performances are so winning that it’s impossible not to be moved.
Philip Lowe and Brenden Lovett in Big Fish
Tyran Parke directs with a light, loving touch and handles the transitions between past and present beautifully, keeping the production flowing seamlessly. Production designers Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt have created a space that gives free rein to the magic realism, with Will’s bedroom on one side, a bed that can be split into two and used in various ways, and along the bottom of the back wall, what looks like a child’s drawing of a river. The set has a childlike quality that suits Edward’s flights of fancy and the way the young Will might imagine the stories in his mind’s eye, while the costuming also works beautifully.
Phillip Lowe is magnificent as Edward. He wins us over heart and soul right from the beginning with an endearing performance that feels utterly authentic whether he’s playing Edward as a young man or nearing the end of his life. His entire physicality changes as Edward gets sick, so much so he manages to make himself look thinner and paler. He also has a finely attuned sense of comedy. After losing his voice during the previews due to a virus, he sang cleverly and with great heart as he eased back into the role vocally. Though his voice was slightly strained towards the end, it is a lovely instrument and suits the role. Adam Rennie’s vocals are absolutely gorgeous as Will, and his acting gathers force as Will gradually discovers more about his father. Together, he and Lowe capture the complex emotional tussle between father and son.
The female characters are more sketchily drawn. Edward’s wife Sandra is portrayed with little depth beyond her being the vivacious girl Edward falls instantly in love with, and an ever-loving, stoical wife and mother. There is one brief scene in which it is suggested that she has had enough of Edward being on the road so much but that isn’t developed. However, Katrina Retallick brings a warm glow to the character in a sensitive portrayal and sings with touching emotion.
They are supported by a strong ensemble, among them Kirby Burgess as Jenny Hill, who loved Edward as a school girl, Alessandro Merlo as Will’s wife Josephine, Seth Drury as the giant, Brenden Lovett as the doctor and flamboyant circus owner Amos Calloway, Aaron Tsindos in the comical role of Don Price, and Brittanie Shipway who unleashes some terrific vocals as the witch. Child actor Brendan Godwin is a very convincing Young Will (a role he shares with Sam Wood).
Big Fish won’t go down in history as one of the great musicals, but it is a sweet show, given a delightful production here that will warm the cockles of your heart.
Big Fish plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 14.