Big Fish – The Musical (Phoenix Ensemble)
April 27 – May 19
“Big Fish” may have failed to make a splash on Broadway, closing after three months after proving too expensive and not quite popular enough to sustain a long run, but still, the show represents a huge undertaking for any community theatre. And so Beenleigh’s Phoenix Ensemble deserves only the most superlative of praise for its Queensland premiere production of the show.
The scope of the story is evident from its first ensemble number, the anthemic ‘Be The Hero’ that introduces many of the fantastical characters that audience members may know from Tim Burton’s 2003 film version and the original novel by Daniel Wallace. The motley crew of characters populate travelling salesmen Edward Bloom’s life story … and what an epic, inspirational story it turns out to be.
Edward Bloom (Nathaniel Currie) has experienced a full and fantastical life, inhabited by witches, mermaids and an apparently friendly giant called Karl (Luke O’Hagan). Our glimpse into it begins on the eve of his journalist son Will’s (sensitively played by Connor Clarke) marriage. Will unsuccessfully begs his father not to make a speech at the ceremony. Whereas once he was entertained by his rarely-there father’s incredible Alabama accounts, now the ever-changing scenarios of how Edward met Will’s mother Sandra (Kellie Ireland) are more maddening than amusing. As a now-adult, Will wants a rational rather than a fantastical account of his father’s life. As he says: “My father talks about a lot of things he never did, and I’m sure he did things he never talks about.” When Edward’s health declines, Will tries to reconcile the fact from fiction of his father’s baffling life and whether he is really a hero of Hicksville, just a big fish in small pond or even indeed a hero at all.
Currie is wonderful as the roguish protagonist Edward, childlike in his playfulness and generous of spirit despite his self-aggrandising fantasies. Indeed, he is an engaging storytelling, and not just due to his charming southern accent. And his warm vocal tones add wonder, joy and whimsy to his many musical numbers. In perfect balance to his enthusiasm, Ireland is a patient and calm Sandra, adoring of her husband but also the rock in the middle of the father and son’s turbulent relationship. Her vocal prowess is outstanding, especially when showcased in the hauntingly beautiful ballad, ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’. Still, the on-stage magic mostly comes courtesy of scenes shared by the larger-than-life father and straight-laced son duo of Currie and Clarke, both dramatically and musically in numbers like ‘Showdown’ in which they have a Western-style duel and trial for Edward’s lying.
As a folksy, family-friendly show, “Big Fish – The Musical” is full of heart, which is more-than captured in this joyous realisation thanks to the intimate staging of the Pavilion Theatre’s ‘tin shed’. Director Tammy Sarah Linde moves the story along at a good pace; transitions between flashback scenes and those of the present are seamless and there is light and shade throughout the production with lots of laughs but also an essential romanticism to its stories. And although the narrative ends in celebration of the legacy of Edward’s big life, Act Two is also quite moving, bringing more than a few tears to opening night audience members’ eyes.
From a technical perspective, opening night was spoiled by some sound issues, however, lighting, is excellent in take of the audience from the depths of a witch’s swamp to the warm of Will’s childhood bedroom. A storybook backdrop adds interest as its pages are turned for changes and it works well as platform for added animation to enhance the production’s realisation of the mythical stories.
The soundtrack represents a montage of styles from the sentimental balladry of ‘Daffodils, in which Edward and Sandra declare their love, to the tap-dance razzle dazzle of ‘Red, White and True’, which is performed as part of a USO show during Edward’s alleged wartime antics. And, as is unfortunately, often not the case, the live band is not only accomplished but plays at a level appropriate to allow for vocalists to be clearly heard.
Impressive performances pepper the 20+ cast of adults and children. Of particular note, Amos Calloway is a larger than life circus ringmaster, while Emma Whitefield is commanding in her stage presence as the ageless witch, not just because of her standout costume but beguiling vocal performance in Act One’s “I Know What You Want’.
Storytelling doesn’t get much better than “Big Fish – The Musical”. Although it is far from a perfect musical, with a werewolf, flying fish and even a dancing elephant, the show is full of circus colour, movement and fun for young and old alike. But there is substance to it its sentimentally too. It’s themes about identity about choosing your own adventure are heart-warming, making it both an impressive and a memorable theatre experience.