Based on a 1998 novel and a 2003 film, Big Fish, onstage now at the Kennedy Theatre viaTheatre Raleigh and under the direction of Eric Woodall, is a magical musical that takes viewers on a rollercoaster ride of emotions.
The story opens with Will Bloom (Chris Dwan), a young man who is about to get married. But, before he can do that, he has to ask his father, Edward (Timothy Gulan), to be on his best behavior. Will is worried that his father will tell stories or make too many jokes, a habit, the audience will soon come to see, that is strong with Edward.
In fact, it isn’t long at all before the production jumps into one of Edward’s many stories. Zooming effortlessly back and forth in time, each story is brought to life with lightning-quick set and prop changes, foot-stamping choreography, and lively ensemble players who seamlessly transform themselves into new characters over and over again.
Edward’s stories truly have it all, both in terms of content and production value. They come complete with shadow puppets, a not-so –scary witch (Chanda Branch), and even a giant named Karl (Paul Hinkes).
There are even some “special effects,” like slow-motion dancing. What’s really nice here, though, is that these things are done in a smooth, even-keeled way. The effects are fun and, yes, they even border on magical, but they aren’t so big and over-the-top so as to detract from the production as a whole, a phenomenon that’s becoming all too common in today’s overly “showy” theatre. In Big Fish, the magical moments are quick and delightful, but the story never loses its rightful front and center position for the sake of “ooohs” and “ahhs.”
What results is a production that is fantastically entertaining without overshadowing the intricacies of the script. And, this is a beautifully written, complex, and incredibly endearing script. The characters here are real, believable, and perfectly flawed. It also doesn’t hurt that the casting is spot-on.
Gulan creates an Edward who is every bit as endearing and as much of a charmer as the script calls for. With a slow, southern accent and the perfect mixture of kindness and mischief twinkling behind his eyes, he brings Edward to a full and rich life onstage.
He is backed by Lauren Kennedy portraying his wife, Sandra. Kennedy sparkles here, playing her character at all different ages. She does the splits and cartwheels of her younger character and then, through perfect posturing and thanks to nice costuming choices from Meg Powers, manages to pull off a much more aged version of the character as well. Her enthusiastic portrayal and her stellar vocal skills make for some of the show’s most enjoyable moments.
Kennedy shares a very nice mother/son chemistry with Dwan’s Will. The pair is wonderfully playful together, while also protective of one another in their own ways. These important pieces of characterization shine through thanks to subtle nuances in both of their expert portrayals.
And, as if having a strong cast wasn’t enough, the direction here is also fabulous. Taking a nod from the “big” nature of this story, Woodall has not allowed his direction to be confined to the stage. Using the aisles and any available space, Woodall allows the story to fully surround its viewers and to encompass every part of the room, a perfect parallel to the masterful way Edward has of captivating an audience. None of this, however, takes away from the simple beauty of Josh Smith’s wooden home set or the extravagance of Erich R. Keil’s lighting design.
The end result here is a musical that is every bit as big and beautiful as one of Edward’s stories. And, just like one of Edward’s stories, this production never loses sight of what matters most: the heart behind it all. Beautifully done down to the bittersweet ending, this production of Big Fish is not to be missed.
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