Arts and Culture

Tall tales and visual magic in "Big Fish: The Musical"

Collaborative show is a hit

In retrospect, we probably should have expected it. Pairing Four Seasons Theatre, the routine collector of some of Madison’s finest vocal talent, and Theatre LILA, magicians of visual and movement, was going to result in something remarkable.

And it was. Like a dessert that expertly mixes lemon and raspberry, the companies’ joint production of "Big Fish: The Musical" (playing through Dec. 11 in the Overture Center Playhouse) revels in its ingredients, creating a show that packs both a visual and emotional punch.

As anyone who’s seen the 2003 movie "Big Fish" already knows, this is a story centered on tall tales. Traveling salesman Edward Bloom (a feisty and determined Scott Haden) is an unapologetic spinner of wild stories, and he’s always the hero, smooching mermaids, charming witches and befriending giants. Those stories once captivated his son, Will (played as a child by Elijah J. Edwards—all wonder, energy and eye-rolls). Adult Will (Stephen Scott Wormley) finds them irritating and off-putting, a deliberate obstacle to truly understanding his dad.

Haden and Wormley make sure the contrasts between the two men couldn’t be more obvious. Haden’s Edward revels in the confidence of his Suthin’ drawl; Will’s has vanished in a wave of higher education. The former’s a charming fabulist, twisting the truth like he draws in air; the latter, naturally, has become a professional reporter charged with chronicling facts. (Talk about your youthful rebellion.) As Will contemplates his own impending fatherhood and marriage to Josephine (Hannah Ripp-Dieter), he has to decide if he can reconcile with his baffling parent.

"Big Fish" features plenty of director (and LILA co-founder) Jessica Lanius’ knack for visual imagination. The multi-culti cast is clad in colorful and expressive costumes, including Music Theatre of Madison’s Meghan Randolph, playing the crystal ball-clutching witch who foretells Edward’s eventual end. Actors hold branches to become trees (a trick Theatre LILA also deployed in last year’s collaboration with CTM on "A Midsummer Night’s Dream") and flourish blankets to become boulders. At one point, a trio of them even reliably conjure circus elephants. The decision to have the ensemble hold and place miniature lighted houses to represent Edward’s childhood Alabama hometown is an inspired piece of stagecraft.

In the first act, we’re treated to, among other things, the fantastical retelling (let’s just say there’s a circus cannon involved) of Edward’s quest to woo his love-at-first-sight Sandra (played by Haden’s real-life wife, Clare Arena Haden). That tale leads into two of the show’s strongest numbers: “Closer to You,” featuring a boisterous and broadly theatrical Jordan Peterson as Amos, a circus ringmaster with a howler of a secret. As petals fall from the ceiling in “Daffodils,” the show-stopping number that closes the first act, you get the sense that the production staff and actors just decided to greenlight every fabulous idea that crossed their minds, and it totally works.

The script’s filled with a ton of clever laugh lines, many of which are delivered by the deadpan giant Karl (Nick Narcisi, rocking stilts). It’s a good thing, because the songbook’s pleasant but mostly forgettable, even though performers like Randolph and Wormley make the most of their spotlight vocal moments. This is a musical carried by the strength of its acting and visual effects, a fact of which Lanius seems keenly aware.

The show’s second act lacks the same level of visual artistry and surprise of the first. In its place are the emotional payoffs, as Will finally learns the truth about his dad. The peak is “I Don’t Need a Roof,” where Sandra’s voice breaks with authentic emotion as she sings about a life without her lifelong sweetheart. Both Hadens do a terrific job of creating well-rounded, sympathetic characters.

"Big Fish: The Musical" is a show that fit into both these companies’ wheelhouses, and it’s more than enough to make us think that Four Seasons and LILA should make their collaborative efforts an annual thing. When they team up, we all clearly win.  

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