Broadway composer Andrew Lippa was the special guest at a NOMTI (The New Opera and Musical Theater Initiative) symposium a few years back and I especially recall his kind and useful critiques of the music presented by local composers and lyricists. He’s returned to Boston this spring, to SpeakEasy Stage, with John August to rework their 2013 version of BIG FISH with a much smaller cast than the Broadway production. They’ve paired it down and taken advantage of the more intimate Wimberly space at the BCA. BIG FISH is a difficult father and angry child “reunion” story which, as Paul Simon would say, is “only a motion away.” BIG FISH swims at SpeakEasy through April 11th.
When I think of tall tales, several of Mark Twain’s come to mind. You never think that his yarns are anything but good-natured. Not so with the father in BIG FISH. He seems to thrive on a callous story. We meet him on the day of his son’s wedding, where he betrays a confidence, a solemn secret his son does not want made public. It looks like he cares nothing for his son’s feelings or his son’s well being for that matter. In fact, he wasn’t around much while his son was growing up. What time they did spend together was taken up by accounts of his own heroism, fighting dragons or swimming with mermaids. As he describes them, “part epic tale, part fire sale.”
I haven’t read the Daniel Wallace novel or seen the Tim Burton film (for which August wrote the screenplay) which I’m told is disarming—so I only have the musical to draw from. To me, the father seemed deliberately mean-spirited. And it doesn’t help that the actor (Steven Goldstein) playing father (although his singing is lovely) looks like Brian Cranston’s Walter White (from Breaking Bad).
What’s best about BIG FISH is the stunning Boston cast under the direction of Paul Daigneault—and the songs which hold the real emotions of the characters. Music director Matthew Stern finds beautiful phrasing in the music, especially for the handsome duet (Time Stops) for Goldstein and Aimee Doherty as mother. Doherty is top of her game. It’s her voice which holds all the colors of her character, not her dialogue (which paints her saintly white as good mother/patient wife).
Lucky for August and Lippa, the fantasy scenes are delightful. So much is going on that you have endless characters to watch. Aubin Wise as the witch is spellbinding as is Lee David Skunes as Karl the Giant. Katie Clark is upbeat and bubbly as the son’s new wife and Sam Simahk artfully conveys the heartache of his father’s absence. But it’s Will McGarrahan who impresses, as the sleazy carnival barker who promises he will get father “closer” to the woman he loves…and as the solid, utterly dependable country doctor…and for some reason (lost on me) he’s also a werewolf. You know, the fun loving kind, like Warren Zevon’s.
As for the reconciliation between father and son before it’s too late, I didn’t get it—but I heard sobbing all over the house. The rest of the audience certainly did.