Just in time for Father’s Day and graduation, we have a musical about fathers and sons, and proceeding to the next stage of life. Stages Repertory Theatre’s director Mitchell Greco explains, “Big Fish is about many things: growing up, family, storytelling, legacy, love, life and death. What is left behind after we go? How does a hero live on? What makes a good father?”
Even if you have not read Daniel Wallace’s 1999 novel, Big Fish, or the 2003 Tim Burton movie of the same name, you can easily follow the story of Edward and Will Bloom, a father and son who approach life from different angles: one that’s imaginative and romantic and the other, realistic and pragmatic. When Will Bloom is about to be married and facing impending fatherhood, he asks his father Edward to refrain from telling any stories at his wedding, and to instead be completely silent—essentially, to not be himself. Their mutual levels of misunderstanding fuel the play, and ask the audience to consider what it means to love family members, even with their imperfections.
Edward Bloom, engagingly played by Kregg Dailey, dominates the musical; he energetically portrays a father at radically different stages of life, a feat in and of itself. This musical is demanding of its leads, with 18 musical numbers, a pared-down version of the 2013 New York City premiere of the production. Dailey has an impressive physical versatility that intersects well with his excellent vocals, which reflect the Alabama background of his character. It is one thing to act with an identifiable (and believable) accent, quite another to sing in it as well, and Dailey succeeds with both.
Will Bloom, Edward’s journalist son who is also on the brink of becoming a father himself, is played by Travis Kirk Coombs. He particularly shines when singing “This River Between Us” with Dailey, a number that underscores the conflict between the two. Edward tells his son, “You were born a tiny middle-aged man,” and Will often chides his father for his romantic and exuberant imagination. Young Will Bloom (and Will’s son at the end of the musical) is played by eight-year-old Coen Ogier, and I cannot think of a better casting for this role. He was adorable from beginning to end, and his timing was amazing for a child actor.
Writer John August and composer Andrew Lippa succeed in this adaption of Big Fish, moving the audience in a way that many musicals cannot. Typically, there is a bias against the sentimental in theater, but grown men were crying at the end of Act Two. Maybe it is the story, maybe it is the songs, but regardless, this musical stays in your head.
At first one thinks that this will be a minimalist set, with seven seats in a circle that are carried by dramatically costumed characters, including a mermaid and a giant. But as the play continues, you realize that the set is heavily dependent on the amazing costuming talents of Kristina Hanssen. Because of the intimate space of Stages’ Yeager Theatre, the production was scaled accordingly, and part of that enterprise was dispensing with some of the larger scale sets that a larger theater might provide. But I don’t think anything is lost in the translation: I enjoyed being able to see the expressions of the actors in such an emotional storyline, and being so close to the action made me realize how much harder it is to perform musicals up close. There is little room for mistakes as the proximity makes them so obvious, and the entire cast worked well together in a small venue with a figuratively large terrain.
Edward Bloom’s main advice to his son is to “Be the hero of your story if you can,” and by the end, Will learns to appreciate his father’s legacy of storytelling, and no longer dismisses his anecdotes as the “Big Fish can Tales” that can never be believed. Instead, he sees the emotional and spiritual truth of these narratives, which cleverly reminds the audience of the dangers of having a too-literal-minded interpretation of the world. Big Fish is a simple story with a deeper message that is cross-generational, and it is refreshing to see a production that is genuinely suitable (and entertaining) for almost all ages.
There is much admire in Big Fish, even if you do not gravitate toward this kind of musical: the conflict between the imaginative spirit and the pragmatic one will never go away, and it is interesting to think about how a novel could change genres to film and musical.
But for my money, the most impressive part about this production is the performance of Holland Vavra, who plays Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife and Will’s mother. Although Vavra is only 33, she completely pulls off portraying Sandra as a high schooler, a college coed, a young parent and a soon-to-be-grandmother, all with ease. I thought her vocals were perfect for the role as well—a strong voice in a strong cast. Her experience singing in The Honky Tonk Angels (also at Stages) has served her well.
My favorite moment in the entire musical was her absolutely charming performance trying out for a job with a traveling circus leader named Amos (played by the excellent L. Jay Meyer, who also expertly plays a doctor). In “Little Lamb from Alabama,” Sandra and her backup singers are wonderful as they sing a fast-paced number while dancing, and I was laughing the whole time. Vavra then slips into a memorable romantic duet with Edward called “Time Stops,” with clever slow-motion choreography that melded well with the lyrics.
Not every song worked so well—then again, I am not a fan of musical numbers that are too-much substitutes for dialogue and cannot stand alone as songs—but that is a minor issue in an original adaptation that reminds the audience that we can love family members even when we don’t understand them. This regional premiere also demonstrates that even if one is not particularly taken with this kind of storyline or even a musical version of it, Houston has amazing talent that can pull it off and garner respect for performances that require so much—in every scene from every player.
Now thru June 26. $21-$51. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 713-527-8669. stagestheatre.com.