John August’s Big Fish has arrived in Milwaukee fresh from Broadway in a condensed and sanitized version for Todd Wehr Theatre’s Young Audiences Series. Nonetheless, under the direction of Jeff Whiting, it is a magical show filled with strong performances and voices, melodious and catchy songs (Andrew Lippa); fun ensemble numbers, a moving narrative, and excellent technical production, including the accomplishment of some pretty astounding feats on a fairly basic stage. This show is both more compelling than the Burton film of the same name, and infinitely more magical. As the show opens, Edward (Jonathan Gillard Daly) is misbehaving at his son Will’s (Nate Lewellyn) wedding to Josephine (Rana Roman), but in the way the fathers are allowed to misbehave at their children’s weddings, and he reveals, against his son’s wishes, the happy news that he has a grandson on the way. However, he has a darker secret than his son, and as medical treatment begins to fail, he is forced to tell Will that he has cancer and is likely to die, despite the prophecy given to him by a witch (Rana Roman) as a teenager, concerning the manner of his death (he keeps insisting “she showed me, and this isn’t it).
You see Edward’s biography, as he has told it to Will, is one of heroic feats, magic, and enchantment with very little realism (the grotesque southern gothic omnipresent in Burton’s film is mercifully played down in this production). It includes the anecdotes that he rescued his village from a giant named Karl, who he helped find employment at a circus under the master Amos (Zach Thomas Woods): a man who initially seems ruthless and manipulative until Edward helps him come to terms with the shame of surreptitiously being a werewolf. At the circus Edward fell in love, at first sight, with his future wife Sandra (Niffer Clarke), and worked for three years with Amos in exchange for clues about who she was before finally finding her and proposing.
All of this is represented on stage as flashbacks in a series of bedtime stories Edward tells a child Will (played by the enchanting Nolan Zdziarski). Meanwhile, the adult Will, with a son of his own on the way, is meditating on fatherhood, and finds his own Dad’s stories more than dubious. He sets out in search of who his father really was, and starts with the rather unpromising existence of a deed, signed by Will’s father, to a house owned by a 0woman named Jennifer Hill (Bree Beelow) whom Will has never met.
He goes in search of her, and the truth about his father’s past. Jennifer reveals the explanation, which turns out to be moving rather than sordid, and discovers that the fantastic nature of his father’s autobiography is extraneous. He really did save a town, and inspired others to find their worth, just not always in the ways that he represented in the childhood bedtime stories that continued into adulthood, and may have become real in Edward’s mind, if no one else’s.
One of the most remarkable things about the production is that it represents the fantastic stories with impressive effects. Sophisticated lighting (Jason Fassl), which rose to the level of the sublime at times, skilled costume design (Karin Kopischke), and quick scenic changes (Brandon Kirkham), which included a beautiful backdrop of Daffodils, all made the fantastic seem real while balancing these stories with the other avowedly true narrative threads concerning Edward’s death, the bedtime stories, Will’s quest, and hospital scenes with an Will, Sandra, and an increasingly ill Edward.
Jonathan Gillard Daly had the charisma to make his character constantly likable, despite some sardonic remarks, occasional infractions, and an apparent refusal to tell the truth. He also had the dexterity to go from death bed scenes, to flashbacks of himself as a teenager and young man without the help of make-up changes. In fact, he was on stage a great deal of the time, but every moment was a delight. Nate Llewellyn was extremely grounded: the exact inversion of his father, and yet the chemistry between him and Daly made them extremely convincing as father and son. The entire cast sang the score superbly; I particularly enjoyed Niffer Clarke and Lllewellyns’ voices which I found superlative, and the numerous ensemble pieces. Ultimately, every moment was delightful. This is the kind of fantasy one imagined putting on stage as a child, in which the theatre seemed like a world where anything was possible. Big Fish will continue to run at the Todd Wehr Theatre at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee at 929 Water Street through May 31st, 2015. There will be performances Saturday May 23rd at 1:30 pm and 2:30 pm, Saturday May 30th with performances at 1:00 pm and 3:30 pm, and Sunday May 31st at 1:00 pm and 3:30 pm. Ticket prices start at 15.00 dollars and can be purchased by calling the box office at 414-273-7206 with discounts available for groups of ten or more.
To get more information contact www.firststage.org
Editors Note: this is a different version from the wonderful production now onstage in Munster Indiana, but for a younger audience, this is a solid way to learn the value and magic of “live theater”. Milwaukee is not that far away (either is Munster for that matter).