On Wednesday, July 11th, Theatre Raleigh sold out its opening-night performance of Big Fish, the second production of its 2018 summer series. Based on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace, and the 2003 Tim Burton film of the same name, this improbable tale of a father and son’s thorny relationship was adapted for the stage by the film’s screenwriter, John August, and features music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa.
Big Fish tells the story of Edward Bloom (played here by Timothy Gulan), a small-town boy with a huge imagination. A self-proclaimed “big fish in a small pond,” Edward believes that he’s destined for great things; and he leaves his home town of Ashton, Alabama, to seek adventure in the great wide world. He befriends a giant, joins the circus, marries his true love, and has a son to whom he can pass on his incredible wealth of life experiences.
There’s just one problem — Edward’s young son, William (portrayed by Keegan Story), figures out that not all of his dad’s tales of mermaids, future-seeing witches, and friendly werewolves are entirely true. Edward is a travelling salesman, and William grows up longing more and more for something real from his father, instead of long absences and wild tales of adventure that don’t hold up to reality. And, so, a deep rift grows between father and son, for as William puts it, “How can you trust a liar when he says ‘I love you’?”
The storyline weaves present day, past memory, and who-knows-if-they-are-true tales of adventure into a complex tapestry of storytelling that is best enjoyed by thorough immersion. Scenic designer Josh Smith accomplishes this very well, with a sprawling set that fills the black box theater space of the Kennedy Theatre in Raleigh, NC. The seating bleeds over from risers onto the set itself, which is designed to look like an attic, cluttered with junk and memories.
Two rows of vintage chairs on the right and left of the stage match the bric-a-brac and allow audience members to enjoy the show up close and personal. (Note: Opening night was packed, and this reviewer found seats far upstage right; while the immersion effect was delightful, there were some notable sight-line issues.)
Two trap doors in the elevated set, as well as several exit points on either side, allow the cast to weave across the stage and among the audience, drawing audience members in as if they are not just observers, but part of the story as well. Eric R. Keil’s lighting design is immaculate, using color and effects to create everything from a rambling river to a raucous circus.
It is, in this sense, that property designer Tim Domack just might be the MVP, as the attic “clutter” turns out to be anything but; chairs and sheets and props are pulled from their places to create clever scene changes, orchestrated without a hitch by the cast itself. Indeed, the opening-night performance was flawless, under stage manager Scott Winston Wray’s hand. If there were any last-minute hitches, they certainly didn’t show.
But the story itself would be nothing without the characters, and the entire cast shone brightly. Lauren Kennedy is always a delight. Her Sandra Bloom is the perfect blend of girlish romance and Earth Mother, capable of sharing Edward’s flights of fancy while keeping her feet firmly planted on the ground.
Timothy Gulan played a somewhat reserved Edward, an interesting choice for the character whose immense imagination and zeal drives both the main narrative and conflict for the show; and Chris Dwan delivered a fine grown-up William, uptight and frustrated, who struggles to unbend just long enough to connect with his father while he has the chance.
Mili Diaz was utterly enchanting as William’s wife, Josephine, who has the unenviable job of bridging the gap between father and son. The supporting cast was also absolutely top-notch, with Areon Mobasher proving to be the standout in an already sparkling ensemble.
Under the musical direction of Ethan Anderson, the songs were spot-on key and carried well in the space. The intricate choreography of Abbey O’Brien greatly enhanced the performance, letting the story dance around as needed and keeping the energy high. And costume designer Meg Powers (with wigs by Elizabeth Printz) designed a wonderful wardrobe that helped main and supporting characters alike transform through time, space, and imagination.
All in all, director Eric Woodall has a top-notch team, and it shows. His vision of this ethereal modern fairy tale delivers a payload of magical entertainment.
With themes of family, identity, the power of myth vs. the necessity of truth, and how being true to yourself can sometimes benefit from bit of grace extended toward others, Big Fish is a hugely enjoyable evening sure to move even the hardest of heart. Big Fish runs through Sunday, July 22nd, at the Kennedy Theatre in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh.
SECOND OPINION: July 12th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh BWW Review by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-Theatre-Raleighs-Inventive-BIG-FISH-Transports-Audience-to-a-Simpler-Time-20180712 and July 7th BWW Interview with Theatre Raleigh artistic director Lauren Kennedy and Big Fish director Eric Woodall, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interview-Theatre-Raleighs-Lauren-Kennedy-And-Eric-Woodall-Talk-BIG-FISH-Southern-Roots-and-Family-20180707; July 12th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: https://www.newsobserver.com/living/article214778805.html; July 12th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/07/theatre-raleighs-big-fish-is-full-of-magic-and-heart/; July 11th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/big-fish/Event?oid=15920207; July 8th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: https://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article214205869.html; and June 16th Raleigh, NC Talkin’ Broadway: Raleigh/Durham interview with Theatre Raleigh artistic director Lauren Kennedy, conducted by Garrett Southerland: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/rd/rd51.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the July 13th Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/07/big-fish-is-a-lively-delightful-surprising-and-heartwarming-story-of-family-love/.)
Theatre Raleigh presents BIG FISH at 8 p.m. July 13, 2 and 8 p.m. July 14, 3 p.m. July 15, 8 p.m. July 18-20, 2 and 8 p.m. July 21, and 3 p.m. July 22 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theatre in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $5 (32.50 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel). (NOTE: The 3 p.m. Sunday, July 15th and 22nd, performances are SOLD OUT. Call 919-832-9997 to ask about the wait list for those performances.)
BOX OFFICE: 919-832-9997, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://theatreraleigh.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S61000005Byu0EAC.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-832-9997 or email@example.com.
SUMMER SERIES: http://www.theatreraleigh.com/subscribe/.
Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions (1998 novel): http://danielwallace.org/wordpress/?page_id=973 (official web page) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Fish:_A_Novel_of_Mythic_Proportions (Wikipedia).
The Novel: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Daniel Wallace (Birmingham, AL-born novelist): http://www.danielwallace.org/home.cgi (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/daniel-wallace-493997 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1180620/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Wallace_(author) (Wikipedia).
Big Fish (2003 fantasy film): http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/bigfish/ (official web page), http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/451072/Big-Fish/ (Turner Classic Movies page), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0319061/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Fish (Wikipedia).
Big Fish (2013 Broadway musical): https://www.theatricalrights.com/show/big-fish/ (Theatrical Rights Worldwide), http://danielwallace.org/wordpress/?page_id=1302 (Daniel Wallace’s web page), https://andrewlippa.com/big-fish/ (Andrew Lippa’s web page), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/big-fish-493987 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Fish_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Study Guide: https://www.firststage.org/Documents/First%20Stage%20PDFs/Enrichment%20Guides/BIG%20FISH-EG-2015.pdf (First Stage of MIlwaukee, WI).
Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics): https://andrewlippa.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/andrew-lippa-13451 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1651688/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Lippa (Wikipedia).
John August (book): https://johnaugust.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/john-august-493996 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0041864/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_August (Wikipedia).
Eric Woodall (director): http://www.ericwoodall.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/eric-woodall-90124 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0940106/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/eric.woodall.98 (Facebook page).
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She also studied dance at San Diego Mesa College and acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and at The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA. She has performed locally at the Holly Springs Cultural Center in Holly Springs, Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in Raleigh, and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum in Cary. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.