I came to Big Fish having not read the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel nor seen the 2003 Tim Burton acclaimed film. It was one of those properties that was recommended to me but that I had never gotten around to exploring. I never attended the short-lived 2013 Broadway production of the musical either as it arrived and disappeared between NYC theatre trips. Aside from listening to the cast recording once, I was about as clean a slate as can be when I attended Shots in the Dark’s production of Big Fish last night in Upper Arlington. Though I don’t have anything Big Fish-related to compare it to, I walked away thoroughly entertained.
With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party and The Addams Family) and a book by the film’s screenwriter, John August, Big Fish is the story of Will Bloom (Johnpaul Adams), a newlywed and soon-to-be-father, and his quest to understand his ailing father, Edward (Chris Ceradsky), whose life was told to him in tall tales rather than hard facts. Edward tells stories of being taught how to swim by a mermaid (Catherine Huffman), meeting a circus ringmaster/werewolf named Amos Calloway (Thai Sribanditmongkol), befriending a giant named Karl (Bruce Hoffman), learning of his own death by a witch (Madeline Elizabeth), and meeting the love of his life, Sandra (Kristen Basore). As he digs deeper into his father’s life, he learns secrets about Edward’s high school sweetheart, Jenny Hill (Nicole Fowles, with Taryn Huffman playing her in flashbacks) and how he worked to save his hometown.
Chris Ceradsky as Edward Bloom plays older without using any silly aging makeup, preferring to transform using his posture and gait. He’s affable and sweet but remains an enigma, much like the character. Chris inhabits this role more easily than he did in Shots in the Dark’s Reasons to Be Pretty a few weeks back, but he still seems a bit uncomfortable in his own skin. His singing voice suffers in many scenes, but I have it on authority from the director that he lost his voice earlier in the week and is just now getting it back. The audience was rooting for him though, and one needs only to look in his twinkling eyes during the finale to know that his emotions were real.
Johnpaul Adams as Will Bloom plays frustrated well, and he rides a fine line trying not to overpower Chris with his stronger singing voice. Objectively, Johnpaul looks to be older in actual age than Chris as his father, but they work well together at creating that sometimes conflict-ridden familial relationship. Johnpaul has great timing, knowing which lines will bring laughs and how best to deliver them.
Kristen Basore is Sandra Bloom, even more delightful and striking than she was in Reasons to Be Pretty in which she also played Chris’s love interest. She also is probably younger than Johnpaul as her son, but she pulls off the older maternal persona like a pro, particularly affecting during a scene in which she and Johnpaul dance. Her voice is clear and singing voice strong, and she really goes for the open-mouthed kiss with Chris during the scene when he tracks her down at college and proposes! This may be a strange thing to comment on, but Kristen also looks strong and sure-footed in heels, more secure along some of her less experienced co-stars that wobble ever so slightly from time to time.
Thai Sribanditmongkol is a standout as Amos Calloway and many other small roles, his voice being one that is firm and carries well on the stage. His versatility is remarkable, and I hope to see him in future productions. Also noteworthy is Lynn Moyer playing Zacky Price and other small parts, fearless in her attempts to elicit laughter from the audience and always succeeding.
Bruce Huffman is a lovable Karl, navigating his stilts as the giant with grace; his daughters Taryn and Catherine Huffman bring eye candy to their numerous parts, and their joy in being in the production is apparent. Madeline Elizabeth as the witch and Nicole Fowles as Jenny Hill round out the proficient supporting cast and are also game at dancing and doubling in other small parts. Choreographer Gigi Cook Thompson brings life to several dance scenes, the funniest involving one that apparently causes fish to leap from the sea!
Siblings Carly and Tanner Sells also deserve honorable mentions for their numerous small parts. The youngest members of the cast, Carly and Tanner look to be having just as good a time as everyone else; Tanner is particularly cute in a lion costume.
Director Patrick McGregor II has really outdone himself in staging and designing this beautiful production, with bold Technicolor lighting and long drapes strategically placed. The staging made full use of the extreme sides of the stage and extended out in the auditorium for a few scenes. Limited set pieces were used throughout, instead relying on lighting changes and placement around the stage to evoke changing locations. It all came together beautifully, and the cast was game at keeping the tone consistent and the energy up. There are times when the actors’ voices were drowned out by the music, but otherwise the sound was more than adequate to support the storytelling.
There is a lot of fantasy at play in Big Fish as well as a message about being true to oneself; “Be the Hero of Your Story,” as one of the songs states. Truth isn’t the same as fact, and Will’s realization that the truth about his father’s nature and spirit were always on display even if the facts weren’t is an important message. I guess we all have a hard time accepting that are parents are regular people with just as many strengths and weaknesses as anyone else. My favorite song from the score, “Fight the Dragons,” should be everyone’s anthem for a purpose-filled life. Big Fish has wholesomeness and charm to spare, and I hope its life and reputation continues to grow; this production shows that the elements are there for an entertaining and memorable evening.
To those unfamiliar with Upper Arlington High School and the location of its Little Theatre (like I was), I offer some advice. The high school is indeed located at 1650 Ridgeview Road, but you’ll want to circle the block, pass the sports field, and enter the parking area on Mount Holyoke Road to what appears to be the rear of the school. I didn’t see any signs signifying where to go or what entrance to use (I hope they have some set up outside for the remaining performances), but I entered a lobby near the parking area where there was a large taxidermied bear to the left. If you see that bear, keep walking forward and you’ll pass the larger theatre and a bunch of posters for past productions in the high school. You’ll eventually get to the Little Theatre on your left and the ticket and concession booth just past it. Trust me, the show is worth the bit of extra effort to find it.
*** out of ****
Big Fish continues through to August 1st in the Little Theatre in Upper Arlington High School at 1650 Ridgeview Road in Upper Arlington (20 minutes or less from most anywhere in Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.shotsinthedarkitc.org/#!bigfish/cekv