Marriott's 'Big Fish' a moving testament to a life well-lived
Be the hero of your story, if you can.
Edward Bloom, the endearing fabulist around whom the musical "Big Fish" centers, offers that advice to his young son during the show's opening moments. Would that we all receive such encouragement. But for those who do not, Marriott Theatre's intimate, affecting revival of this tuner by composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa and writer John August may be just the inspiration we need to live as large as we are able.
Adapted from Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel and Tim Burton's 2003 film, this story of love and reconciliation had its Broadway tryout in Chicago nearly 10 years ago. That grandly designed production boasted an award-winning creative team and elaborate special effects. But I don't recall having the kind of response to it that I had to director Henry Godinez's beautifully acted, imaginatively staged production, which is among the most emotionally engaging productions I've experienced at the Lincolnshire theater.
Charismatic Broadway veteran Alexander Gemignani plays traveling salesman and raconteur Edward Bloom, whose tall tales involve a witch (Lucy Godinez), a mermaid (Ayana Strutz), a werewolf (Emma Rosenthal) and the genial giant (basso profundo Jonah D. Winston) who becomes his best friend. Heidi Kettenring, indispensable as ever, plays Edward's devoted wife, Sandra, and a guileless Michael Kurowski plays their son Will, who is expecting a baby with his new wife, Josephine (Lydia Burke).
Estranged from his father, Will dismisses his fanciful stories. Unlike Edward, who "only sees what he invents," Will "only sees in black and white." But when he learns Edward is terminally ill, Will returns home to uncover his father's truth before his life ends.
Shifting between the past and present, the musical offers glimpses of that life, including Edward and Sandra's initial encounter, which is chronicled in "Time Stops," a lovely ode to love at first sight. In "Fight the Dragons," we watch Edward explain his restlessness to young Will (William Daly, alternating with Archer Geye) while also instilling in the youngster an appreciation for storytelling.
The production moves briskly under Godinez (with help from Tommy Rapley who serves as associate director and choreographer) who delivers some exquisite moments. Case in point is the Act 1 finale in which Edward's declaration of love for Sandra is accompanied by a shower of daffodil petals. That Godinez and his creative team achieve the effect through low-tech methods makes it all the more magical. (Kudos to set designer Collette Pollard, properties designer Sally Zak and Jesse Klug for his stellar lighting).
Romance gives way to reality in the ballad-heavy second act, of which Kettenring's "I Don't Need a Roof" is a poignant testament to enduring love and a showcase of the Marriott veteran's superior acting. But the production's finest moments come courtesy of the penultimate "How It Ends" featuring Gemignani's deeply moving performance of a man honestly assessing his less-than-perfect existence and finding it a life well-lived.
Would that we were all so fortunate.