Forth Worth — A cast of fired up first-timers for Artes de la Rosa (plus a lead actor we’re happy to see again) fill the stage for director Adam Adolfo’s production of the musical Big Fish, an adaptation of the Daniel Wallace novel/Tim Burton film of the same name. And though this show’s special effects can’t compare to the onscreen version, it has tons of heart and a pleasant artisanal vibe that bring to life this one-of-a-kind story of a father and son struggling to connect—over time, over emotional distance, over terribly different views of the world.
Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, The Addams Family) wrote the music and lyrics and John August (Frankenweenie, Go, Titan A.E.) the book for Big Fish, which opened on Broadway in October 2013. There’s a Broadway-generic feel to some of the music, but plenty of country in many of the songs, which are backed by a nimble six-musician group led by music director and keyboardist Kristin Spires. The bluegrass and swing rhythms reflect the story’s Alabama setting, both in the present and in the son’s childhood a few decades ago. Artes is doing the "12 Chairs Version," which is more intimate and has a smaller cast.
Big Fish has a romance in the mix (in fact, a couple of them), but the heart of the matter is the always-fraught relationship between son Will Bloom (well played by two actors: Jonathan Hardin as Will the man, and Stephen Newton as Will the boy) and his father Edward Bloom (Artes veteran Joshua Sherman in a winning, heart-on-sleeve performance), a fantasist and tall-tale-teller of a man who drives his fact-driven son…nuts. Will wants to know what’s true about his dad’s stories and what’s not, using that yardstick to measure the worth, the genuine-ness of their bond as father and son—and as if that particular stick, arguably up Will’s hoo ha as well, is the only true measure around.
We’re instinctively on Dad’s side, yet he gives us moments of doubt when he blurts news he shouldn’t, or takes over his son’s special moment with another yarn. We can see how it might be hard to handle over a lifetime. We can see how Will became who he is, in counterpoint to his father. Time jumps around in Big Fish: plots run on parallel tracks but in different eras. Scene to scene, we find ourselves in Will’s boyhood, Edward’s own growing-up years, and in the present as Will plans his marriage and Edward faces hard truths about getting older. Round and round the story goes, as we circle ever closer to the heart of things.
In the telling, Edward’s past is full of color and adventure. The proverbial “big fish” in the small town of Ashton, Alabama, Edward comes off (it’s his version, why not?) as a town favorite, the likeable, capable guy with ambitions too large for this mini-burg to hold. Edward’s personal odyssey doesn’t take him all that far from home, really, but in short order he still manages to meet a life-altering witch (Emily Warwick), a giant (Domanick Anton Hubbard), a mermaid (Tori Hoffmeister), a circus impresario (Todd Camp), and a cute little “lamb from Alabama”—Sandra (Lauren Kane), the girl who will become his wife.
Sherman was a standout as the Baker in Artes’ recent Into the Woods, and he brings the same quirky Everyman warmth to the role of Edward, who (like the Baker) encounters a witch in the woods. She tells him how his life will end, and gives him the courage to “Be the Hero” of his own story—advice he wants to pass along to Will. Sherman and Kane bring real warmth to some of the show’s most heartfelt numbers, including the Edward/Sandra duets “Time Stops” and “Daffodils.” Kane, with her rich voice and natural acting style, makes a strong impression in her Artes debut, particularly in her solo, “I Don’t Need a Roof.”
Emily Warwick’s big voice blazes in the Witch’s big turn, “I Know What You Want.” Hardin and Emma Leigh Montes win us over as the buttoned-down Will and his open-hearted fiancée Josephine. Fatima Rodriguez is touching in the song “Jenny Hill”—she’s the small-town girl Edward left behind. Todd Camp is a slick-talking charmer as Amos Calloway, the circus man who makes Edward toil for clues to Sandra’s whereabouts, and Domanick Anton Hubbard (on stilts, to boot) is something to see as Karl the Giant. As young Will, Newton (seen in Casa Mañana’s Les Misérables last year) steals a few moments with his gosh-darned cuteness—as does another (grown-up) actor, Matthew Perry Smith, who infuses a number of small roles (fisherman, doctor, circus strongman) with a little something extra. And Jakeb Lowery and Dusty Farmer are, well, thuggish as a couple of high school bullies who, of course, grow up to be bigwigs in the town.
The quality of the ensemble singing and dancing (choreography is by Austin Ray Beck) gets better each time Artes does a musical, and the sizeable cast whizzes in and out of an amazing number of costume changes from designers Rodney Hudson and Bentleigh Nesbit.
So much of Big Fish takes place in memory and imagination—but at every moment, however fantastical, the story is moving deeper and deeper into emotional territory we all share, full of the joy and sadness and danger of being someone’s child, someone’s parent, someone’s love, someone’s disappointment, someone’s everything.
An unusual story told in an unusual way—and worth seeing.