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Be the Hero of Your Own Story

Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre’s first production of 2023 has a lot more heart and soul than many of their flashier, more feelgood features of previous seasons. There’s certainly comic moments, and a whimsical, magical feel to the musical. But the story deals with a serious subject. It’s about the strained relationship between Edward and his son Will Bloom. When the musical opens young Will is about to wed his beloved fiancee, Josephine. We also discover that his father, Edward Bloom, has kept secret that he’s been seriously ill for a while and that his days may be coming to an end.

The musical, with a book by John August and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, bounces back and forth in time. Based upon both the 2003 Tim Burton film and Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel Big Fish: a Novel of Mythic Proportions, it tells the story of Edward Bloom, a small town Southern traveling salesman. We see in him a man who relishes telling tall tales, but who also deeply cares about every single person in his life, especially his adoring wife, Sandra. All his life, Edward has filled his son’s head with farfetched stories. They were always filled with witches, giants, werewolves and mermaids, in which Edward was the hero. However, as his dad’s life sadly appears to be coming to an end, Will needs to know what’s real and who is this man he calls his father.

Instead of gilding his production with mountains of glittery, gaudy scenery and special effects, Director Henry Godinez goes directly to the essence of this story. He directs this musical focusing primarily on the tempestuous relationship between a parent and his child. Audiences coming to this show expecting massive, colorful sets and eye-popping projections may be disappointed, although Collette Pollard’s scenic design is perfectly appropriate, especially as lit by Jesse Klug. But the theatergoer who enjoys a sincerely performed, beautifully told story about the relationships between real people will be greatly rewarded. Artistic support is provided by Tommy Rapley as Associate Director and Choreographer; and Ryan T. Nelson adds his own magic as Musical Director. A talented eight-member orchestra is led by conductor/keyboardist Kevin Reeks. The show’s costumes and wig design by Amanda Vander Byl and Christina Reszel add an especially enchanting embellishment to each character.

The musical and dramatic talents of this cast can’t be beat. Broadway star Alexander Gemignani (“Les Miserables,” “Sweeney Todd”) makes his much-welcome Marriott Theatre debut. He’s fantastic in the pivotal role of Edward Bloom. This fine actor’s sincerity and warmth fills the Marriott stage and his mellow baritone makes every song a memorable musical monologue, in particular “Be the Hero” and “Fight the Dragons.” Chicago favorite, Heidi Kettenring, last seen portraying the titular matchmaker in “Hello Dolly,” once again gives a powerhouse performance as Sandra, Edward’s beautiful, loving wife. Her rendition of “I Don’t Need a Roof” is simply stunning. And last seen at the Broadway Playhouse in “The Play That Goes Wrong,” Michael Kurowski returns to the Marriott stage, impressing with his truthful characterization of Will Bloom. With a gorgeously trained voice, Mr. Kurowski caresses songs like, “Stranger” and his duet with Gemignani, “The River Between Us.”

The supporting cast represents some of Chicago’s finest

actor/singer/dancers. Lovely Lydia Burke makes a compassionate Josephine, Will’s wife-to-be. She also doubles as characters in Edward’s stories and as townspeople. William Daly (and Archer Geye at certain performances) nicely plays Young Will, as well as appearing as a townsperson. The gifted ensemble includes so many wonderful area performers. Handsome Brandon Dahlquist, last seen as George Bailey in American Blues’ “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is Edward’s nemesis, the bully, Don Price, and as well as others; lovely, multitalented Lucy Godinez hides her beauty under wigs and makeup as The Witch, and other characters; and Emma Rosenthal makes a welcome return to the Marriott stage as Amos Calloway, the Mayor, and also others.

Christopher Kale Jones, who charmed as Captain Von Trapp in Paramount’s “The Sound of Music,” is very funny as Zacky Price, and other townsfolk. Always a pleasure in any role she plays, beautiful Allison Sill returns to the Marriott as Jenny Hill, Edward’s high school sweetheart, and others; Ayana Strutz lights up the stage with her dazzling smile as the Girl in the Water, and other characters; and recently seen as Colonel Mustard in Mercury Theater’s hilarious “Clue,” and making his Marriott debut, the tall and talented, Jonah D. Winston is a standout as Karl, the Giant, as well as Edward’s Dr. Bennett.

“Big Fish” isn’t the big, splashy, super colossal kind of musical we’ve come to expect from the Marriott Theatre. It’s a show filled with heartwarming, affectionate characters and a serious story that, despite its fictional flashbacks, is rooted in sincere relationships and loving, personal memories. It’s about a man who deeply cares for his wife and son, as well as for everyone he’s ever known. Edward Bloom is a real life Good Samaritan and lives only to help others. His only fault is that he’s a bewitching storyteller and weaver of dreams who sometimes believes his own tales. Edward Bloom is, like all of us, The Hero of His Own Story.    

Highly Recommended