There are musicals that are beautifully written; there are productions that are beautifully directed, and there are productions of musicals that are beautifully performed. The current mounting of the Broadway musical Big Fish at Marriott Theatre is an example of all three.
The Marriott Theatre production of Big Fish will make you feel emotions of wonder and joy and happiness, and it will also touch you in such a way that tears will stream down your cheeks. You will go on an emotional journey that spans distances of miles, time, and even logic without ever leaving your seat.
IN THE BEGINNING
Big Fish began life as a novel. Published in 1998, author Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions tells the story of Will Bloom and his father Edward. Edward Bloom is a traveling salesman with a penchant for telling tall tales of very grand proportions – such as being friends with a giant or having kissed a mermaid.
When Edward starts dying of cancer just as Will is about to become a father himself, Will finds himself desperate to learn who his father really was because all he knows are these unbelievable stories, and he wants to know the truth before it’s too late.
The book was adapted into a feature film in 2003 from director Tim Burton. The film featured a blockbuster cast including Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Steve Buscemi, and Danny DeVito.
After out-of-town tryouts in Chicago, a musical adaptation of Big Fish premiered on Broadway in 2013. The cast starred Tony-winner Nobert Leo Butz, and the production featured a grand production value.
Reviews generally praised the dazzling and vividly lavish production, but it didn’t strike a chord with New York audiences. It closed later that year after 34 previews and 98 regular performances.
The script from playwright John August is simplified a bit from both the book and the movie, but all the changes seem organic and translate into a clearly cohesive story. And the addition of some truly splendid music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa genuinely captures the beauty of the core elements of the story.
Marriott Theater is an intimate theater-in-the-round space. Mounting a massive production with big sets and spectacular visual effects doesn’t play into what works in the Marriott space. Instead, director Henry Godinez has stripped the production down to focus on the real relationships between the characters.
There are many relationships that are explored over the course of Big Fish, but the most important one is that between Edward and his semi-estranged son Will. That relationship could not be played better than by Alexander Gemignani and Michael Kurowski.
Gernignani is a Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critic’s Circle, and Grammy nominated performer who creates the character of Edward with both intricacy and grandness. Simply put, Gernignani is a masterful technician of all of the tools necessary to stir an audience into utter captivation.
Kurowski has a resume full of quirky roles like Doody in Grease and Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, many of which I have had the great pleasure to witness. I’ve always enjoyed Kurowski as a performer.
The role of Will Bloom is a different kind of role than I have seen Kurowski tackle before. It is a role that requires maturity and depth, and Kurowski delivers. I could not be prouder of the performance that Kurowski gives in Big Fish.
In the film version of Big Fish, Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney split the acting duties for the role of Edward. Finney plays the deathbed older version of the character, while McGregor plays him as a young man.
For the stage musical, Gernignani plays Edward throughout all his various ages – young, middle aged, and as a senior. Gernignani makes it flow so naturally, it is truly inspirational.
In the female leads, Marriott favorite Heidi Kettenring and youthful Lydia Burke give strong performances as Edward and Will’s respective wives.
The rest of the characters are played by a small, very talented ensemble that includes Brandon Dahlquist, Lucy Godinez, Christopher Kale Jones, Emma Rosenthal, Allison Sill, Ayana Strutz, Jonah D. Winston, and young actors William Daly and Archer Geye splitting the role of Young Will.
While the entire ensemble is incredible, each one turning in dynamic individual performances while contributing to an amazing overall theatrical event, there are a few standout performances. Winston’s charm as Karl the giant illuminates the stage like a thousand-watt smile. Allison Sill provides some of the funniest moments in the production as Edward’s high school sweetheart Jenny Hill.
Music director Ryan T. Nelson always does a fine job and the orchestra, under conductor Kevin Reeks, is impeccable.
The show’s dance numbers come from the mind of associate director and choreographer Tommy Rapley, and add to the beauty of the overall picture that the cast and creative team paint on Marriott’s stage.
The Marriott production of Big Fish is special in the same way The Fantasticks and Bridges of Madison County are special. In the right hands, those stories are beautiful without requiring big sets and spectacular effects.
For Marriott’s Big Fish: the beauty is in the story; the beauty is in the acting; the beauty is in the lyrics…the beauty blossoms all over the stage and leaves you with a profound sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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