Big Fish (Live Theater Review, 2014): An Odyssey in Bloom

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Big Fish is the musical adaptation of the 2003 film, Big Fish, which was based on the 1998 novel, Big Fish, by Daniel Wallace – all of which seems like a vague modernization of Homer’s The Odyssey.

I mean the play begins with a young Will (Nic Garcia) reading The Iliad and the father, Edward Bloom (Chris Janssen) tells his son that those stories have already been told – hence why he’s telling the sequel. Then, Bloom (Sr.) recounts stories of mermaids (Odyssey’s sirens), a giant named Karl (or a Cyclops), a small town where he was unable to leave until it was flooded (i.e. Calypso’s island where Odysseus was a prisoner and Poseidon – god of sea – would kill him if he tried to leave).

Of course, I say “modernization” because, whereas Odysseus’ myths were totally acceptable for his son and wife when he got back (almost a decade later), it doesn’t sit well with a child today who feels the stories were a way to cover up for being an irresponsible dad.

In short, the play is about Will Bloom (Danny Martin) finding out who his father really is; drawing fact from the fiction to piece this man together.

Acting

There’s an ensemble quality to this show that’s wholly refreshing: everyone looks like they’re having fun. There is no negativity – as far as I can see – on stage. Everyone looks happy; everyone looks to be playing in the play. Everyone has a job to do and does so with a smile.

The two standouts (in my opinion) are Chris Janssen as Edward bloom and Mohamed Ismail as Don Price – the lifetime rival.

Chris Janssen may seem the obvious choice since he is the star, but it is more than that. Ignoring the fact that he started with an Alabama accent that faded with each musical number (it was opening night), there was an energy to him that was unparalleled (which I’ll explain in more detail when I go into the duet, Time Stops).

Charles Bukowski once said, “What a writer has to sell is confidence,” which may not make much sense in a postpostmodernism world, but if you take that message and apply it to acting then the obvious analogy is “What an actor has to sell is energy,” and Janssen sells it well!

Our immediate introduction to Edward Bloom is not a happy one. Speaking as an audience member with no real knowledge of the film or novel (or Odyssey, really) that predates the musical, I sided with Will in the first few scenes. Edward seems unreliable; less carefree and more irresponsible. I felt bad for the child version of Will whose father is out (working) and missing every big event only to come home and brag about his adventures.

I believe this is intentional or else Will would simply seem whiny and ungrateful; instead, we empathize early on.

The energy that Janssen puts out there is one of childlike wonder and discovery, something that’s long been lost on Will – and I’d reckon most of society. Janssen is consistent (sans drawl), infectious, and knows how to keep the energy high even when a scene (or musical number) is slow.

Mohamed Ismail, although far less prominently featured, also stands out. He’s a great example of a character with few lines, but leaves a lasting impression. He has a recurring line “witch lover” which seems like a throwaway on paper, but with the use of blocking and a well-paced pause, Ismail makes it iconic. His comedic timing and repartee with Janssen is hysterical (specifically at the “Ashton Town Square” scene) and it feels good to watch him succeed and grow in his own way.

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Sound, Song & Dance

Jennifer Gorgulho was the choreographer and – if you’re anything like me – you’d be shocked to learn that she’s the only one. I say this simply because the choreography is so vivacious and varied that you’d have to believe there were a multitude of creative minds working together. I mean, I’m sure the directors had some input, but this was incredible.

From complex knee-slapping fish dances on a river bank to U.S.O. assassination fight and dance choreography, this musical has it all.

The songs are equally as varied with my personal favorite being Fight the Dragons, but Time Stops easily steals your heart. And it’s at this moment that I want to once again praise Janssen and, present a little of the negative in an otherwise stellar show.

There are two drearily slow songs in this musical and unfortunately they’re back to back.

Stranger sung by Will Bloom and Two Men in My Life sung by Sandra Bloom (Elizabeth Santana). Both are slow, but the problem is the energy is equally tiresome. I don’t believe this is entirely the players’ fault since the blocking doesn’t help, but it is a flaw nonetheless.

Stranger is fairly short and follows after an expertly crafted scene where the staging parallels life and death. Similarly, the blocking for Stranger focuses on Will staring at his baby’s sonogram so that we’re led to believe the “Stranger” is about his baby until he turns and faces his father. Although the reveal achieves the desired effect, we spend a painfully long time staring at Will’s back while he sings upstage.

Two Men in My Life has Sandra and Will doing laundry, but it’s not as short as Stranger and there is no reveal. While Santana has a beautiful voice, the show already runs at 2 hours and 30 minutes, so if you were going to cut something, this would be it since it doesn’t give us any information we don’t already know.

Back to the praise… because, for all the negative criticism for those two songs, they hardly dent the energetic and seamless production.

Following those dreary songs is Out There on the Road where, although Bloom remains relatively stationary, the ensemble continue to adorn our hero in what can only be described as a theatrical montage. It’s brilliant, creative and keeps the energy up despite a lack of movement. (And the lighting in this one is a particularly nice touch.)

The highlight of the night was Time Stops. Another slow song, but this is where Santana and Janssen shine. Janssen has so much energy in his voice and face that you don’t notice how slow everything’s become; you don’t notice his lack of movement. Indeed it’s as meta as it sounds and when it transforms into a duet, you forget all the myths behind the man and accept that this love – if nothing else – is real.

In regards to the sound, there were definitely some problems. There were times where microphones weren’t turned on as loud as they could go and other times when the music dwarfed the singers, but it was mostly a good experience.

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Costumes & Sets

This is a production company that spared no expense. The sets fly in and out as quickly as the ensemble – as smoothly too. The costumes are equally glorious and don’t disappoint; after all, when you hear a “giant” is going to appear, you will see a giant!

Much of the liveliness of this production does seem to be driven by the material. After all, we travel from a calm river bank to a thunderous circus; from a swamp with witch trees to a college of auburn girls. But I’m encroaching on the next bit…

The Direction

The director was Patrick Klein and the musical director was Matthew Mattei. I don’t know where one job ends and the other begins in a musical, so praise to both of them for putting on a fantastic – and indeed, magical – show.

I’ve split this review into several parts, but that’s a disservice because this play is so seamless. The ensemble’s happiness, the bubbly acting, the energetic songs, the diverse costumes and sets, all of it contributes to the production; the sum of its parts.

People are happy on stage because they’re not sitting around in some dull “extra” costume, instead they’re constantly changing sets and characters. We don’t need to be told that the play is magic, we live it with the players. It’d be impossible not to be invested in your part on stage because everything is kinetic.

This may have been my first visit to the Lucie Stern Theater, but it won’t be my last; the energy is infectious!

Performances are Thursday through Sunday until September 28th. You can order tickets online here.

Big Fish (September 13, 2014)
Directed by: Patrick Klein
Performed by: Palo Alto Players (PAP)

Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA 94301

For more reviews, visit Derek Hobson’s Article Archive

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