The musical Big Fish (★★★), based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and on the film adaptation directed by Tim Burton, came and went on Broadway before many had a chance to see how the beloved father-son story translated to the stage. Boasting a book by the film’s screenwriter, John August, and music and lyrics by The Wild Party composer Andrew Lippa, the show is enjoying a D.C. premiere with a diverting — but not dazzling — production at Keegan Theatre.
Front and center is traveling salesman Edward Bloom (Daniel Van Why), husband, father, and incorrigible teller of tall tales. For more than twenty years, Edward has filled his son Will’s head with outlandish stories of daring escapades involving mermaids, giants, and damsels in distress. Will (Ricky Drummond), now an adult embarking on marriage and fatherhood, can’t decide if his dad is merely a master of hyperbole, some kind of down-home fabulist, or just a liar.
He’s compelled to know the truth behind Edward’s amazing stories, particularly the romantic fable of how Edward met the love of his life, Sandra (Eleanor Todd), Will’s mom. In the process of distinguishing fact from fiction, Will hopes to gain a firmer grasp of where he comes from, and what sort of father he might be.
Full of pithy asides, and genuine emotion, August’s book smartly conveys Will’s journey of discovery. And Drummond, a strong singer, excels in playing Will’s frustration as he figures out what, if anything, his father has been trying to teach all these years by telling such unmitigated whoppers. The arguments that arise between father and son — well-acted by Drummond and Van Why — come on swiftly, dark, and fleeting, like summer storms. More than the backstory romance between Will’s parents, these familial tempests seem the real heart of the piece.
The fun, on the other hand, should be in seeing Ed’s crazy legends brought to life. Born and raised in rural Alabama, he insists repeatedly that as a teen he was shown, not told, his future by a bayou witch. Thus, this folk tale explicitly acknowledges an emphasis on seeing is believing, while also pointing out that there’s more to any story than what meets the eye.
That wizardly element made Tim Burton a good fit for visualizing the fantastical world of Big Fish on film. Here, however, the onus rests on the show’s co-directors Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith to realize the implausible characters and feats that live, via Ed’s tales, in the fertile imagination of young Will (Erik Peyton). The results are hit and miss.
Scenic designer Matthew Keenan’s layers of screens, murals, and fabrics, lit warmly, and augmented by projections designed by Patrick Lord, effectively evoke a twilit forest of enchantment. Whether in backwoods Alabama, or in a circus tent, the story feels set within Edward’s fairy tales, a delightfully misty place that’s pierced only occasionally by the light of cold, hard truth.
But Debra Kim Sivigny’s costumes and the visual concepts for many of these larger-than-life characters don’t really live up to what Ed or Will might imagine. Dressing a fortune-telling bayou witch in grandma’s cardigan, for instance, spoils the effect of foreboding mystery built up in Edward’s tall tale of their encounter. Throughout, the actors don an array of homely sweaters, robes, and wigs that call attention to costume changes, rather than disguise them. And, with the notable exception of Edward’s best road buddy, Karl, an unassuming giant played to utter endearment by Grant Saunders, few of the supposedly fantastical figures look all that fantastic.
The characters, in general, are better presented through song, aided by Rachel Leigh Dolan’s versatile choreography. Although the arrangements of Lippa’s score tend to be a bit cloying, there’s fine storytelling in the lyrics which the cast uniformly delivers with sharp intent.
Todd sings and taps her way with aplomb through “Little Lamb from Alabama.” And Katie McManus, buried under a fright wig that resembles a dusty tuft of weeds, at least sounds fantastic as the Witch. Emily Madden also contributes excellent work as Jenny Hill, the hometown girl Edward left along the way.
It’s not to this story’s overall benefit that the women are portrayed merely as girlfriends, witches, or wives, the keepers of men’s secrets and none of their own. But Big Fish does offer moving insight into the dynamics of admiration and competition that affect relationships between fathers and sons.
To that end, the production’s catch of the day might be Van Why, whose complicated, passionate performance finds strength in Edward’s vulnerability. He sells the show’s heartwarming message of dreaming big enough to create space for your whole family’s aspirations. Although his singing on Edward’s ballads might be shaky, and his Alabama accent occasionally veers north, Van Why surmounts the technical issues with an assured presence, deft comic timing, and sheer emotional commitment. Even while Edward’s stories invite all sorts of doubt, in Van Why’s able hands, the essence of Edward’s character remains true.
Big Fish runs to September 9 at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets are $45 to $55. Call 202-265-3767, or visit KeeganTheatre.com.
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