Speakeasy’s Scaled Down ‘Big Fish’ Shines (4.5 Stars)

‘Big Fish’ – Based on the Novel by Daniel Wallace and the Columbia Motion Picture; Written by John August; Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa; Directed by Paul Daigneault; Musical Direction by Matthew Stern; Choreography by Larry Sousa; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito; Sound Design by David Reiffel; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston through April 11.

Having not seen the movie, “Big Fish”, I had no idea what to expect from this terrific musical adaptation of the Tim Burton film now being presented by Speakeasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, but I liked what I saw. This is a re-tooled version of a show that did not fare well in New York, but it was scaled down to its essential story (and was being re-worked right up until the week before opening), and is one that I expect it will continue to get stronger during the run.

The story opens with son Will pleading with his Dad to not embarrass him and his bride-to-be on their wedding day by telling outlandish stories or making an embarrassing toast, and while it  held some intriguing possibilities, the less than inspiring opening numbers dropped my level of expectation. But as the show unfolded, it steadily gained momentum, and by the end  I was pretty well sold on “Big Fish”.
This production works on a number of levels – as a compelling father-son relationship struggle, a collection of fantastical tales, a comedy, and finally and importantly, as a musical. Will Bloom is a pragmatist who not so surprisingly is in the “just-the-facts” business of being a reporter, and his father Edward is a traveling salesman who spent most of his the time on the road and not much with his son while he was growing up. Dad appears to be self-centered and irresponsible, as he can’t even remember what sport his son is playing when he comes back from a trip, and lies to him about being in the stands. To make up for his  shortcomings, he weaves tales for the boy, but by adulthood, Will is sick of the behavior and just wants his father to come clean for once. The immediacy for a resolution is hastened when Ed is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as interesting as that would be for a non-musical, the show really kicks into gear when the fantasy storylines kick in.

For starters, there’s teenage Ed’s encounter with a witch, who tells him how and when he’s going to die, which allows him to live fearlessly throughout the rest of his life. There’s also his encounter and ongoing friendship with a giant that leads to his career in the circus, spurred by a desire to get some information on the girl of his dreams whom he eventually marries. And there are some more plausible but fairly magical moments where Ed saves a town from destruction and (for those who haven’t seen the film), a possibly dark secret concerning Ed and a high school sweetheart. There’s a lot of story crammed into this production, and for the most part it works, except for a tacked on storyline that was straight out of left field involving Ed helping the circus ringmaster come out of the closet as a werewolf.

The strength of this show is the cast, particularly the always-terrific Aimee Doherty, who shines as Ed’s wife Sandra, and who has some of the best numbers in the show, “Two Men in My Life”, “Little Lamb from Alabama” (with Sarah Crane and Sara Schoch); and “Time Stops” with Ed. Sam Simahk is convincing as the bitter son and does a great job on several numbers, bringing a new life to the reprise of “Be the Hero” at the end. Although not a charismatic as I would have liked in the role of Ed, Steven Goldstein has a beautiful set of pipes and grew on me as the show progressed. Aubin Wise is commanding as the Witch, and Lee David Skunes as Karl the Giant and the lovably odd Will McGarrahan as ringmaster Amos Calloway provide many of the laughs to this very funny show.

The set and costumes are also first rate, and whatever changes the producers made to the show since its New York run seem to have worked. It’s well worth seeing for yourself. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/big-fish/