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Tall Tales: A Review of Big Fish at Marriott Theatre

Marriott Theatre’s 2023 season kicks off with a production of “Big Fish,” a fantastical story based upon the original novel by Daniel Wallace and the subsequent 2003 film adaptation by John August, who also wrote the book for this musical.

“Big Fish” is your typical family drama in many ways, including the son who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his father and the mother urging the two to reconcile before it’s too late. Edward Bloom casts himself as the star of every moment, even on his own son’s wedding day. He knows witches and giants and mermaids (oh my!), but he doesn’t know his own son, Will, a pragmatic journalist who is about to become a father himself. Their strained relationship hinges on Will’s belief that he doesn’t know anything real about his father, and Edward is so used to putting on a show that it’s difficult for him to open up. The problem with Edward Bloom isn’t that he’s incapable of telling the truth, it’s that after spending a lifetime trying to be “bigger,” he often forgets how to just “be.”

“Big Fish” combines two timelines—present-day Alabama, in which an older Edward is now ailing, and the more daring years of his youth. Broadway veteran Alexander Gemignani navigates between the two masterfully. His Edward is the life of the party, charming, and magnetic at any age. Edward seems capable of anything, so it’s no wonder people flock to him. But even he sometimes needs a guiding hand. Gemignani is wonderfully matched with Heidi Kettenring, a veteran performer of productions at Marriott Theatre. After a brief meet-cute at a circus, Edward embarks on a hero’s journey to find the girl of his dreams, and Kettenring’s warmhearted and steadfast portrayal of Sandra Bloom makes it obvious why someone would go through so much trouble to find her again. Completing the Bloom family is son Will (a moving Michael Kurowski) and Will’s wife Josephine (Lydia Burke).

The difficulty with a show like “Big Fish” is that in the effort to make it larger than life, it sometimes just gets bloated. Ten years ago, I saw the pre-Broadway tryout production of this show in Chicago, and the fine line between extravagant and overstuffed stood out to me then. I’m happy to say that director Henry Godinez and associate director and choreographer Tommy Rapley, have a tight show here, with standout moments of stagecraft. The show’s artistic team, particularly set designer Collette Pollard, lighting designer Jesse Klug, and sound designer Michael Daly have created a dreamy, atmospheric, yet grounded experience.

The music, conducted by Kevin Reeks, is lush, and the ensemble is fantastic and vocally rich. Lucy Godinez’s solo number as the Witch in Act One must have shaken the rafters of the Marriott. The larger cast brings levity to the drama, and both subtle and obvious comic moments earned laughs from the opening night audience. Shoutout to Emma Rosenthal as Amos Callaway and the standout Jonah D. Winston as the giant Karl, whose delivery of a joke (that I cannot print here) still has me laughing.

Elements of magical realism elevate “Big Fish” from a rote story of father-son tension into a grand adventure. Edward tells magnificent stories to infuse a little magic into his past and reality, not dismiss it. He is the author of his own story, and he takes joy in being the main character. And really, is there anything wrong with looking back at moments in our lives with a bit of wonder?