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“Stories Under Every Leaf And Stone”

“Big Fish,” the musical based on Daniel Wallace’s novel about an alluring travelling salesman and his larger-than-life experiences that also spawned the 2003 Tim Burton directed film, had its 2013 pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago. With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a book by John August, Edward Bloom’s exploits, were expanded and enlarged to epic proportions by director/choreographer Susan Stroman. The show had too much happening, for so long, that it was hard to believe it would be able to survive its fall opening in New York. The script was considerably reworked over the summer, however, the show did not see the new year.

But that was only an early chapter in the “Big Fish” story, a musical that deserved to live on. It has been regularly produced including at the Boho Theatre in a blackbox space at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theatre a few years ago. The scaled down production fit the space well and captured the essence of the central story that tracks Bloom’s son Will on a journey to learn the truth behind his father’s wide-eyed stories. What resonated most to me at the time was how the score had coalesced and matured. In such an intimate setting, and even at the expense of the sizable scope of the stories being told, this sparkling gem of show had me hooked.

Now comes an exciting, new Equity production that brings together the best of all possible creative Chicago worlds to the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Director Henry Godinez and Associate Director and Choreographer Tommy Rapley have expertly infused the small-cast version of the show, designed for a dozen players, into a sweeping musical tapestry of fabric, color and light. The work is superbly paced, the staging fresh and creative, and the crowning achievement is that it takes full advantage of Marriott’s in-the-round, ramped access configuration, effortlessly flowing from one scene to the next, beginning to end. The stunning first act closing number is a sight to behold!

Leading the all-star cast and ensemble is Alexander Gemignani as the always engaging Edward Bloom, a husband, father, salesman and teller of stories. Thirty-six to be exact, with many multiple versions of encounters: a prediction from a witch, a gentle giant friendship, the first kiss from a girl in the water, a hyperbolic werewolf and the love of his life, a vivacious redhead named Sandra played by the equally vivacious Heidi Kettenring. Gemignani and Kettenring are terrific together.  That goes for Michael Kurowski as Will and his Josephine, Lydia Burke, too.

The ensemble, all under the musical direction of Ryan T. Nelson, is a force to be reckoned all its own, top drawer Chicago talent all worthy of mention including:  Brandon Dahlquist, Allison Sill, Christopher Kale Jones, Ayana Strutz, Lucy Godinez, Emma Rosenthal, William Daly and Archer Geye, splitting the role of Young Will, and the commanding presence of Jonah D. Winston.  Strutz does some nifty aerial work and you will want to have the Alabama Lambs at your garden party this summer. Conductor Kevin Reeks and the orchestra are in fine form.

Godinez has assembled a diverse production team with wide-ranging credits from theaters across Chicagoland. With the ruddy scenic design by Collette Pollard with its many surprises, hidden panels, trap doors, tiny towns and reams of fabric that appear out of thin air exploding in the colors of Jesse Klug’s lighting design, Amanda Vander Byl’s costumes and Michael Daly’s sound, Marriott’s “Big Fish” is a magical night of theater not to be missed.