Reviewed by George Basler
NOTE: The review, because of scheduling conflicts, is based on a final dress rehearsal Thursday night (July 12). SPARE Productions deserves thanks for agreeing to the arrangement.
While some Broadway hits — Oklahoma, for example — are recognizable to almost everyone, other musicals are what you might call “cult” shows. These are shows that didn’t do particularly well on Broadway but that develop a loyal set of fans over the years.
One such show is Big Fish, which is being given an energetic production this weekend (July 13-15) at Binghamton High School’s Helen Foley Theatre.
The musical ran for only three months in New York back in 2013. Since then, however, it’s been restaged in venues ranging from London’s West End to Sydney, Australia. The Binghamton production is the work of SPARE Productions, a community theater group that relies heavily on the talents of local high school and college students.
The production, directed and produced by Marisa Valent, has some good moments and solid performances by the three leads and a large chorus. Unfortunately, though, these efforts can’t disguise the fact that Big Fish is a fair to middling show, at best.
The musical is based on a novel by Daniel Wallace and a 2003 film directed by Tim Burton. It centers on the efforts of Will Bloom (Ronnie Sullivan) to reconcile with his dying father, Edward Bloom (William Hagenbuch), who, when Will was growing up, treated his son to a series of tall tales about his mythical adventures but rarely showed his true self.
Some critics have called the show an offbeat blend of Death of a Salesman and The Wizard of Oz, but the mixture doesn’t quite work, mainly because the book by John August lacks clarity and cohesion.
Extended production numbers in the first act focus on Edward’s mythical adventures, but his character is ill defined, and it’s never made clear why he feels the need to spin these tall tales. Although a lot happens, there’s no real emotional connection to the action.
The second act is far better because the relationship between the father and son, which is the emotional core of the show, comes more clearly into focus. This leads to some truly touching moments.
Obviously, the SPARE staging can’t technically match the bells and whistles of a Broadway production (and this show needs a lot of bells and whistles). Still Valent, assisted by Lily Woughter and Stephanie Leader, all do yeoman work in keeping the action moving and staging the fantastical moments of the show.
This is particularly noteworthy because Big Fish is a complex production that requires the 20-member cast to do 123 costume changes throughout the action. (Julia Adams deserves credit as the costumer.)
The choreography by Alery Patton is solid as well, especially in Act II’s opening, “Red, White and True,”featuring dancing USO girls in a delightful take on a World War II-era production number. Darius Fuller does a good job conducting the live orchestra.
All this effort, however, can’t overcome the fact that the show’s score is undistinguished. With a couple of exceptions, Andrew Lippa’s songs are musically and lyrically bland.
Unlike in the movie, the father is not double-cast, so Hagenbuch has the challenging job of playing both the younger and older Edward. His character is the linchpin of the show and is rarely off stage. Hagenbuch sings and acts well. He catches the charm of the younger Edward, and rueful attitude of the older man.
Sullivan provides solid support as the son who comes to terms with, and finally accepts, his fabulist father. He gives a powerful version of “Stranger,” which is one of the best songs in the show.
Michelle Kearley Thompson, as Edward’s wife, performs the other notable song in the show, “I Don’t Need a Roof.” She makes the most of this ballad even though her character is never really defined. Arthur deserves the blame for this, not Thompson.
Patrick Kerley deserves mention for performing the role of a giant — a character in one of the father’s tales — on stilts. Kudos also to Adriana Kabat as Jenny, Edward’s high school sweetheart, and Emily Zandy as Josephine, Will’s wife.
In short, SPARE Productions deserves credit for tackling this difficult show, and the lead performers are worthy of your viewing. This is a very commendable production. But, for me, whether Big Fish is an underappreciated gem or a show that deserves to be shelved, remains an open question.
IF YOU GO: Big Fish will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in Binghamton High School’s Helen Foley Theatre, 31 Main St., Binghamton. General admission tickets are $15 ($12 for seniors and students). Visit www.spareproductions.org.
Talented SPARE cast boosts 'Big Fish'
Reviewed by George Basler