BIG FISH, RPG Productions and Hayes Theatre Co at the Hayes Theatre, 27 April-14 May 2017, Photography by Kate Williams: above - Katrina Retallick and Phillip Lowe; below - Brendan Lovett; below again - Lowe and Seth Drury
It’s a piquant thing to see a bare bones independent company working in the tiny Hayes Theatre take a Broadway flop and turn it into a six-tissues + standing ovation popular hit. The man largely responsible for this phenomenon is director Tyran Parke. His fervent wish and tireless efforts to stage Big Fish mirror the dreams and innate sweetness of the main character, Edward Bloom (Phillip Lowe) and the result is unexpected and enchanting.
Big Fish was a moderately successful novel, then a moderately successful movie (directed by Tim Burton), then was pumped up beyond its carrying capacity for the New York stage by Susan Stroman (whose iron hand straitjacketed the Australian cast of The Producers). Now it’s been released from a huge cast, and the expectations of recouping a humungous budget and floats free in a production that’s quirky, funny and touching by turn.
Edward Bloom is a big fish in the small pond of a nowhere Southern town; he is a dreamer and a roamer yet an essentially good person. However, anyone with a dad who drove their mother crazy with feckless charm while she did the hard yards will know the downside of Edward’s wide-eyed allure. It’s inevitable, perhaps, that his son Will (Adam Rennie) grows up with a much harder and more pragmatic edge. And Katrina Retallick makes more than the most of what could otherwise be an insipid role: Edward’s childhood sweetheart and lifetime love, Sandra.
Big Fish is about the father and son and their rocky road to redemption. The women in their lives are peripheral, if loved. An interesting twist on most vanilla American musical story lines is Jenny, the home town girl who loved Edward but lost and Kirby Burgess brings poignancy and sharpness to the role.
Edward’s florid tales – begun while falteringly reading bedtime stories to his boy – are depicted in all their delicious craziness. Did a witch really tell his fortune and show him his death? There’s the witch (Brittanie Shipway) to prove it, maybe...Did he really join the circus? There’s the Ring Master, Amos Calloway (Brenden Lovett) who also has a peculiar secret that seems quite logical and likely by the time it’s revealed. And theres a mermaid, of course.
Also prominent in the ensemble is Aaron Tsindos as the obnoxious high school jock Don, with whom Edward locks horns in more ways than one and Seth Drury as the giant, Carl, whom Edward rescues from himself and who may or may not be what he appears to be, which is sweetly beguiling and...very very tall.
The action flows back and forth between Will’s childhood, when he’s played by Brendan Godwin (very good on the night I attended) alternating with Sam Wood. The “boy” role is sufficiently fleshed out to make the narrative’s transition from child to man a plausible one. And when Will eventually has a son of his own, via Alessandro Merlo as his wife Josephine, it’s lump-in-throat stuff.
The score by Andrew Lippa is as unusual as the show itself with songs ranging across lyrically folky, to twangy country, perilously close to schmaltzy and perkily funny – in particular the talent quest trio of gals led by Retallick doing Little Lamb From Alabama to hilariously correct choreography by Cameron Mitchell.
The two and a half hours (including interval) are played out on a clever, simple, dreamlike set that smacks of a kid’s imagining and of somewhere that might not be exactly as described, or even there at all (design and costumes by Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt, lighting by Matthew Tunchon). Musically, Big Fish is beautifully served by an invisible band led by Luke Byrne and the company is as vocally accomplished as one might expect from a show created and directed by Tyran Parke. He’s made much more of the piece than is really there and brought out all possible heart and soul through the very fine performers (Lowe, Rennie and Retallick in particular).
Big Fish is as cute and sharp as rock candy, yet it has a bitter-sweet centre highlighted by Parke’s telling of the tale, that lifts it to a place where heart strings are plucked and tears and laughter happen. Recommended.