When I first saw Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel Big Fish, I never thought “This would make a great musical!” After getting the chance to see the regional premiere at Smithfield Little Theatre during opening weekend, I’m still not convinced that it does make a great musical.
Burton was able to take the screenplay by John August (who also scripted the stage musical, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa) and use the magic of cinema to bring audiences into the stories told by Alabama travelling salesman Edward Bloom. When restricted to the stage, it becomes more of a challenge to enjoy a whimsical escape into the storytelling amidst the buzzkill of reality as the audience witnesses a less engaging story of a father and son completely unable to connect to one another.
In the Smithfield production co-directed by James Clarke and Jennifer Pendleton, the role of Edward Bloom is split between John Cannon as the younger version as told through Edward’s stories, while Joe Philipoom plays the older Edward who’s doing the storytelling. Philipoom has the necessary charisma and ease to make Edward an endearing character that could have easily come off as an unsympathetic and annoying narcissist in less capable hands, and his singing is just as masterful as his acting. While Cannon’s vocal skills aren’t quite at the same level as Philipoom, he matches his enthusiasm to make for a nice pairing of the two actors.
Edward’s son Will is also split between two actors, with Marshall Robey rising to the challenge of the difficult task in playing adult Will, a character that comes across as rather unlikeable even though his frustration with his father is undeniably understandable. Wade Jinright does a great job as younger Will, managing to show the developmental stages of the relationship when Will’s fascination with his father’s stories start to turn to skepticism and mild resentment.
Surrounding these four performers is a cast of two dozen additional performers who are clearly enjoying the moments they occupy the stage, which makes it a more entertaining endeavor for the audience. Choreographer Chris Hogan provides the large ensemble with movement not too advanced to be too challenging, but still finds inventive ways to avoid being too repetitive or boring.
Some of the standouts in the ensemble include Chris Ann Wells who does some of the best singing in the show as Edward’s wife Sandra, the thoroughly entertaining Bob Strozak as howling showman Amos, and it would be difficult for Howard Marchant not to stand out as the gentle giant Karl. The three young actresses who play the cheerleaders also have a nice crowd pleasing moment that ends up being one of the highlights of the show, along with a humorous sidestep transition between scenes that involves the entire cast. Perhaps most impressive, is that in this large ensemble cast, not one performer ever stands out for the wrong reasons, as Clarke and Pendleton have done an outstanding job of shaping this large cast of community actors into a solid community of their own.
There is no one credited for set design though several names are listed for set crew, which is understandable since the production calls for many changes of scenery which are all quite attractive and accomplished with efficiency. Costumers Leslie Neel and Linda Gwaitney help bring the community to life with some inventiveness for the more fantastic aspects of the stories and nice uses of color for dressing the community characters.
I wish Dan Steiger’s lighting transitions were as smooth as the set transitions, as coming out of blackouts particularly in the second act were sometimes abrasively blinding with their instantaneous brightness. I’m sure sound designers Al Buchanan and Taraleigh Casteen have their hands full working with such a large cast, and will hopefully iron out the few issues that arose during the performance I attended, such as individual microphones not being turned on until after a verse of the number had already been completed, or at times microphones being left on for someone who was clearly not on stage.
Big Fish is a lot of show, clocking in at more than two and a half hours, but Smithfield Little Theatre succeeds in tackling it with an impressive large ensemble that performed in front of an enthusiastic audience on the night I attended. I applaud Smithfield Little Theatre for their efforts in producing musicals that are commonly overlooked by other community theaters in the area. If you’re not able to catch their production of Big Fish, be sure to keep an eye out for next season’s productions of Young Frankenstein and Hands On a Hard Body.
Big Fish plays at Smithfield Little Theatre through May 19th. Tickets can be purchased here.