Theater Review: BIG FISH (Chance Theater)

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by Tony Frankel on July 11, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


So here’s what baffles me: A show which is middling at best is suddenly showing up at regional, community and high school theaters with alarming regularity around the country. Well, maybe not so alarming. The show was, after all, on Broadway. Musical Theatre West in Long Beach just did the L.A. premiere, and now the small-but-mighty Chance Theater in Anaheim offers the O.C. premiere. But the musical Big Fish needs to be taken off its hook and tossed back in the sea of flops. Even the normally brilliant director Oanh Nguyen can’t work miracles with a production that never hits a trajectory. His imaginative, wide-stage, magic-lamp theater idea is beautifully quaint — bolstered by Nick Santiago’s projections — and he’s assembled a hard-working enthusiastic distinctive cast, but the evening just kind of wriggles on the end of the line.

Daniel Wallace’s 1998 “novel of mythic proportions” and the ensuing 2004 Tim Burton film with Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney found a charming way to depict a troubled father/son relationship by telling tall tales turned true. A tribute to storytelling as a gift from one generation to the next, Big Fish is a perfect case of American magical realism. Its down-home Alabama saga is a triumph of imagination which leads to one of the most perfect deaths – and deathbed reconciliations – ever depicted on screen. The movie was sweetly uninsistent even as it celebrated exaggeration as an art form.

Edward Bloom (Jeff Lowe) is a traveling salesman in the Deep South who combines Baron Munchausen, Paul Bunyan, and Walter Mitty in his fervent attempts to improve on truth. At least that’s how his literal-minded journalist son Will (Jared Price) sees his cancer-ridden dad. Steadfast throughout, Will’s mother Sandra (silver-voiced Laura M. Hathaway) is a wife who loves Edward for all his flaws, not despite them. Now married to Josephine (Monika Peña), Will stumbles onto discoveries about his dad that make his father’s tale-spinning seem less an embarrassment than a destiny, and the son wants answers.

Whether it needed to be turned into a musical is the latest case of apples becoming oranges. I caught the world premiere of the highly anticipated Broadway-bound musicalized version in Chicago five years ago, and there were serious problems: One: Although it was an admirable job for one who never wrote a musical before, screenwriter John August’s adaptation for the stage lost sight of whose story it was and left the female characters shockingly underdeveloped. Second, songwriter Andrew Lippa created blandly bouncy pastiche and sappy songs steeped in sentimentalism — most are unforgettable with a one or two ear worms (the love-at-first-sight song “Time Stops” has a lovely melody).

But as with his mediocre Addams Family musical, Lippa’s on-the-nose lyrics — where subtext is never sub — desperately needed Sondheim for complexity. The show was re-tooled after Chicago for Broadway, where it flopped, and again for London last year, where it was scaled down for an intimate production. But without original director Susan Stroman’s overkill visuals (she’s a show-woman in the Tamor tradition who could animate a cemetery), the onus probandi fell on Lippa, whose coyly mannered, old-fashioned work remains best-suited if for anything a community children’s show. Mr. August still knows the right buttons to push for a tearful, smiley-face ending (aided here by the sincerity of Chance’s ensemble), but the women’s roles remain ridiculously marginalized.

Now that the Chance has produced so many musicals with iffy books and so-so or lousy songs (Bloody Bloody Andrew JacksonLysistrata Jones, In the Heights, The Secret Garden, Little Women, Triassic Parq, Violet, Dogfight), perhaps it’s time to start fishing around and reinvigorate Golden Age musicals that even with troubled and corny librettos at least have great songs.

photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

Big Fish
Chance Theater
Cripe Stage @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center
5522 E. La Palma in Anaheim
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3 & 7:30
ends on July 29, 2018
for tickets, call 888.455.4212 or visit Chance

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