This is the show that got away.
Big Fish, the musical that Artes de la Rosa opened at Rose Marine Theater last week, seemed ready to make a big splash on Broadway a few years ago. The show was based on a successful film of the same title, and had a strong creative team that included its book author, John August, who also wrote the film, and words and music by Andrew Lippa, who had done The Addams Family musical.
But the show failed to find any traction on the Great White Way, and closed at the end of 2013 after a run of less than three months. Since that time, however, the musical has found some love in regional theater. Another production of it just opened at Artisan Center Theater in Hurst.
The full title of Artes de la Rosa’s production is Big Fish: 12 Chairs Version, identifying it as a scaled-down version of the original that is performed by 12 actors (about half the original cast size). So the creators of the musical are obviously going out of their way to make sure the show is doable for smaller companies.
There is a lot to admire in Artes de la Rosa’s presentation of this Alabama-set tale that chronicles the efforts of an aging traveling salesman, Edward Bloom (Joshua Sherman), to teach his about-to-be-married son, Will (Jonathan Hardin), how to tell a story. The problem is that Dad is a colorful, outgoing type who never lets the truth get in the way of a good tale, while his son is a button-down type with the sense of humor of an undertaker. “I like to make lists,” Will tells us at one point. And we believe him.
There is a lot of love and life wrapped around Edward’s storytelling lessons. It is one of those shows that tries to make us laugh before getting down to its true, warm-and-fuzzy agenda. So there are plenty of heartbreaks and hospital trips to deal with.
The acting and singing in this production are solid across the board. Sherman and Hardin handle all aspects of their performances well, and their spouses, mom Sandra (Lauren Kane) and Will’s bride, Josephine (Emma Leigh Montes), sing their parts particularly well. The supporting players also respond strongly when called upon, especially Todd Camp (Amos and other roles), who also displays some impressive vocals.
The show is well-paced, thanks to deft and uncluttered direction by Artes de la Rosa artistic director Adam Adolfo. He has prepared his players well, and lets the material breath in their capable hands without any directorial fussiness. He is aptly aided in that endeavor by Austin Ray Beck, who does a nice job with the show’s minimal choreography.
The music in Big Fish, performed in this production by a fine five-piece pit ensemble led by music director Kristin Spires on piano, is pleasant, if somewhat uneventful. It lacks the obvious hit or two found in most successful musicals.
More problematic, though, is the show’s book. It is ironic that a musical about storytelling does not tell its story as well as most. It has a tendency to repeat itself and bog down in the process. We are hit over the head about Edward’s fondness for exaggeration more often than The Sound of Music tells us that Maria is sweet. So despite Adolfo’s brisk direction, the show feels longer than its reasonable length of two hours and change.
In this particular production, the look of the show is one of the primary problems. There is no set — just a set of stairs painted blue to suggest a river. Everything is played out against the blacker-than-ink, cavelike backdrop of the Rose Marine.
The lack of sets, or anything to brighten the look of the show, and Kyle Harris’ lighting plan (which just further proves how impossible it is to light that space) are major drawbacks. The result is a presentation that sounds pretty good, but looks awful.
So while this production mostly steps up and cheerfully extends its hand, the show itself requires you to meet it more than halfway.