|Lee David Skunes, Steven Goldstein & Company in "Big Fish"|
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)
As Tom Thumb sings in the musical “Barnum”, “bigger isn't better”, necessarily. At the end of the first act of the musical “Big Fish”, as presented on Broadway in 2013, the stage was suddenly filled with what appeared to be millions of daffodils in “glorious technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope, and stereophonic sound” (as “Silk Stockings” put it). At the same point in the current trimmed-down “revisal” of the musical at SpeakEasy Stage Company, there are several bouquets of daffodils held by almost the entire company of twelve (also slimmed down from the original Chicago and New York revisions of a cast of dozens). That, in microcosm, displays the fundamental difference in this production: instead of spectacle, there is simpler, humbler humanity, much more visually accessible and emotionally involving. There is charm, there is heart, there is sentiment (not to be confused with sentimentality). With alterations in the Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa (“Wild Party”, “The Addams Family”, and the oratorio “I Am Harvey Milk”) and the Book by John August, this is essentially a new work. The source material was Daniel Wallace's 1998 “Big Fish: a Novel of Epic Proportions”, which August first adapted for the screen in the popular 2003 film version by Tim Burton.
Although it was both a critical and commercial success in its Chicago tryout, the musical was changed considerably for Broadway, becoming overstuffed, overpopulated and overproduced, as is frequently the case when a complex book is adapted for the musical stage (as with “Ragtime” or “The Color Purple”). The special effects were truly wondrous, even epic, but they overwhelmed the sweetness of the story, with a run of fewer than a hundred performances on Broadway. Reminiscent of such sources as “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Music Man” and even the opera “Turandot”, with inspirations as diverse as the Odyssey and the twelve labors of Hercules, it's at its core unabashedly heartwarming and wholesome. This version has been trimmed down to its essentials by combining some characters and dropping others (“killing their darlings”, as the saying goes, such as the Siamese twins), and from a full orchestra to a six-piece band, adding new songs (reinstating “This River Between Us” from Chicago) and cutting others (such as the distracting “Red, White and True” trio). In so doing, there have been mostly welcome changes (heeding the advice playwright Moss Hart urged in his work “Act One” when an amazing gorgeous set was discarded when it proved to be a distraction during tryouts). It's challenging alchemy at work here, mixing the everyday with the fabulous while making the play more focused than before. In so doing, they've disproved that old conceit about bigger being necessarily better. Tom Thumb was right.
For those unfamiliar with the basic plot, it tells the story (or, rather, stories) of a traveling salesman Edward (Steven Goldstein) and his son Will (Sam Simahk) who has spent a lifetime listening to his father's fish stories. There's a flashback to Edward telling his son as a young boy (the talented Jackson Daley) about catching a huge fish or mermaid (the amusing Sarah Crane). Edward's wife Sandra (Aimee Doherty) tells young Will to go to sleep, but Edward narrates yet another tale when he and his high school nemesis Don Price (the menacing Zaven Ovian) met a witch (the funny Aubin Wise), prophesying their futures. Edward reveals some very private information at Will's wedding, leading to a fight. Later, the local doctor (Will McGarrahan) discloses the truth about Edward's health and Will reluctantly comes home. Meanwhile, Will's new wife Josephine (the impressive Katie Clark) hears Edward's literally tall tale of a giant named Karl (Lee David Skunes) who travels with Edward to a circus run by Amos Calloway (McGarrahan again). There he first meets Sandra, falling instantly in love with her. Edward proposes to her, promising her a life full of her favorite flowers (those daffodils), revealing that his name is...Bloom. Of course. Will later discovers a secret his father had been keeping, when Edward reveals the truth about a flooded town and its mayor (the effective Daniel Scott Walton) and leaving a girl named Jenny Hill (the very memorable Sara Schoch) behind. Will then tells his story about returning to the river where all of his father's friends in his stories await him. Will and his own son return to the river years later, and Will starts to tell him his tales. It has been, after all, a story of a son's search for his father.
The show, simple in its viewpoint but deceptively not simple in its structure, has been perfectly landed by Director Paul Daigneault (the company's Producing Artistic Director). Also put simply, this is easily the best production in SpeakEasy's storied history. The clue to Daigneault's triumph can be pared down to one word: casting. First and foremost there's the central role of Edward, sensationally embodied by Goldstein, who looks and sounds as though he were born to play this dynamo with a phenomenal voice (no surprise: he has a considerable history of operatic roles). Then there are the usual suspects from our area: Doherty, who apparently can do just about anything, has never been better; Simahk (memorable in recent Sondheim regional productions) finally gets a role worthy of his versatility; and Garrahan adds another duo of unforgettable roles to his astonishing repertoire. And relative newcomer Skunes is a towering presence in every sense of the term. In short, the entire ensemble is a gift. There are of course other important contributions to the work, including excellent Music Direction by Matthew Stern, fine Choreography by Larry Sousa, truly ingenious Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord, unbelievably intricate and varied Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, expert Sound Design by David Reiffel, and the magical combination of Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Projection Design by Seághan McKay. Oh, and there's that new-and-improved score by Lippa, which is absolutely glorious. Not many lyricists could get away with such lyrics as “I'm not afraid to stoop to scooping poop” but he manages to do that thanks to his lack of affectation and his disarmingly lovely score.
In the end, this musical play succeeds in that most elemental fundamental of theater at which August is quite adept: storytelling. Its moving finale works only if the audience is willing to believe the impossible. As Edward puts it,”the air was sweet and mild with disbelief implausibly surrendered”. Exactly. And as another character says, Edward's stories were “truth...(with) embellishments”; and yet another character sums him up: “if you understand the stories, you'll understand the man”. Even a list of the song titles reinforces the concentration on simple storytelling: “What Next”, “Time Stops” and “How It Ends”. “It ends with faith, it ends with love...it all ends well”. And as Will finally says to his dad: “That's how it happened; that's how you go”. And that means you, too. Go you must, to this triumph of musical theater at its greatest. It honestly doesn't get any better than this.