It is the DC premiere of Big Fish and there is genuine anticipation to see how the small stage at the Keegan Theatre will accommodate a tale of such mythic proportions. Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and heavily influenced by the imagination of Tim Burton’s 2003 film, the musical had a short run on Broadway in 2013 and will receive its’ West End premiere in London later this year. Matthew Keenan’s set design features three full length white drapes at either side of the stage that lead into the wings and provide great depth for transitioning the storytelling. At the rear of the set is a projection screen featuring a woodland scene and below it is a painted backdrop of bushes. The brilliance of the drape design, with their creeping ivy and back lights like fireflies, becomes apparent as the show progresses; they feel like curtains framing the projections, a tent for a wedding reception and the big top at the circus.
The show begins with Edward Bloom (Dan Van Why) skimming stones into a river and it’s just the first moment in a terrific sound design by Tony Angelini. It’s the wedding day of Edward’s son, Will (Ricky Drummond) and as the two of them talk it is hard to immediately buy into the relationship as they look no more than 5-10 years apart in age. We go back in time and meet the young Will (Erik Peyton) in his bed as he waits for a story from his Dad. The relationship between Van Why and Peyton is the emotional center of this production and it is truthful and heartwarming throughout. Be the Hero introduces us to the eclectic cast of characters and Edward teaches us the best way to catch a fish, with the help of Rachel Leigh Dolan’s fun and lighthearted choreography, in the infectious Alabama Stomp. We return to the day of the wedding and Edward, with his pant legs rolled up, wading in the shallow water at the edge of the river. The sound is so convincing that we can’t help feeling distracted by the conversation that immediately follows between Will and his Mother, Sandra (Eleanor J. Todd) which is clearly taking place in the water.
Another of Edward’s stories takes us back to the day he and his high school nemesis, Don Price (Eitan Mazia) met the Witch (Katie McManus). Mazia makes distinct choices with all of his characters but stands out in his urgent portrayal of Price and provides an excellent counterpoint to Van Why’s laid-back Edward. The women surrounding the Witch look like dark angels in their flowing black capes that complement the set in style while contrasting strikingly in color. It’s the choreography highlight of the show as the space is used with great effect and purpose while McManus delivers a flawless vocal. Debra Kim Sivigny’s costumes are great throughout (apart from minor gripes about the wigging of the Witch and the unconvincing baby bump of Josephine) and the introduction of the giant, Karl (Grant Saunders) is another highlight. The routine during Out There on the Road might not be complicated but Saunders deserves great credit for the execution in the big platform boots – and the choreography fun continues with a cute tap routine in Little Lamb from Alabama.
Co-Directors, Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith, move the story effortlessly between the two time periods and there is a wonderful moment in Time Stops where Will and Josephine (Allie O’Donnell) walk through the frozen action with the great depth of the set design showcased by the lighting change. The projection design of Patrick Lord is worth the ticket price alone as it continually enhances the story without ever making us feel the actors aren’t the focus of our attention. There are numerous standout moments but as Edward dodges knives in Closer to Her and they thud into the projection screen wall you can’t help but be impressed. Yellow flowers engulf the screen as Daffodils provides the musical highlight of the first act we’ve been waiting for and while Van Why is a very good singer it’s the honest connection with whomever he shares the stage with that leave us wanting to know how his story ends.
Fight the Dragon starts act two as young Will is moved around the stage and Edward’s imagination on his bed. The playful interaction between the two puts a smile on everyone’s face although it would be nicer to hear more of Peyton’s vocal in the mix. With Edward becoming increasingly sick, and the adult Will frustrated at his failed attempts to find out more about the true life of his father, their fractured relationship is laid bare in the emotionally charged The River Between Us. It’s simply but brilliantly staged as Drummond stands upstage of Van Why before joining him front and center for the confrontational climax. This is not the slot in the show the song was originally intended for but it’s hard to picture it having more impact anywhere else.
Will learns about how his father saved his home town and his relationship with Jenny Hill (Emily Madden). Music Director, Jake Null, has the ensemble in great voice and although the score never lends itself to them having a truly transcendent moment they deliver their best vocal in Start Over, which features another nice choreography moment as Madden breaks from the line to converse briefly with Will before the routine resumes. As Edward becomes closer to death and reconnects with his son in What’s Next their journey is almost complete – but it’s the appearance of Sandra at the end of the song with Todd looking completely heartbroken that draws us in further. The Procession features the company placing a daffodil one by one over the back drop and as they appear on the projection screen and float away down the river it’s one of the most poignant theatre moments you can imagine.
Big Fish is a big achievement for Keegan.
#tothepoint Rating: 80.5/100
You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.
Ticket Price: $45
Value Review: +$17