Broadway musical ‘Big Fish’ swims better in a smaller pond

SHARE Broadway musical ‘Big Fish’ swims better in a smaller pond
SHARE Broadway musical ‘Big Fish’ swims better in a smaller pond

“Big Fish,” the musical based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 book and popular 2003 film, arrived for its pre-Broadway debut in Chicago in 2013 and then swam straight to Broadway where, not surprisingly, it floundered.

Now, at Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana, the show, in its first “professional staged local edition,” has found a whole new life. Unencumbered by the elephantiasis of New York expectations, it has found its ideal scale, which turns out to be intimate though certainly not storefront in dimensions. More crucially, thanks to director Bill Pullinsi’s ideal casting, and his unwavering focus on crystal-clear storytelling and deeply honest relationships, the show has found its all-important heart. As a result, both John August’s book for the musical, and Andrew Lippa’s lovely, at times whimsical score, can now be fully savored.

None of this is to say that “Big Fish” is a “small musical.” Quite the opposite. In its exploration of father-son relationships, true romantic love and the desire to shape an ordinary life with a combination of extraordinary imagination and real-life heroics, it is every bit as large as life itself. But like many shows before it, it choked on its Broadway aspirations, and has had to find a more natural environment.

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‘BIG FISH’ Highly recommended When: Through June 7 Where: Theatre at the Center,1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, Indiana Tickets: $40 – $44 Info:(800) 511-1552; www.TheatreAt TheCenter.com

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At the center of the story is Edward Bloom (Stef Tovar), the son of a farmer, who has been born and bred in a small riverside town in Alabama but imagines greater things for himself. A romantic at heart, he is terrified by the notion that he will lead an ordinary life. As it turns out, he will marry Sandra (Colette Todd), the beautiful woman he adores, and will spend most of his career on the road as a traveling salesman. But his natural gift for storytelling, easy charm offensives and determination to be the hero of his own story rarely fail, except with his son, Will (Nathan Gardner), who he wants to impress more than anyone. Will, who grows up to be a journalist, has a far more literal mind and feels that all the stories, combined with his father’s frequent absences, are just a distancing device. And a terrible rift opens up between the two men at the very moment that Will has married and is about to become a father, and Edward is quite suddenly on his deathbed.

Pullinsi has assembled an ideal cast and found a perfect balance between the story’s very real moments and Edward’s fantastical “embroidery” of the truth. Tovar is the inspired Everyman at the story’s center — tremendously likable (although you easily can see how he could anger his son), natural in all his encounters, and graceful in the way of a man who just enjoys dancing. And he has the perfect counterpart in Todd, a curvy redhead with a lustrous voice (listen to her sing “I Don’t Need a Roof”) and an emotional intensity that captures the anxiety that comes from often being caught between her husband and her son — the two very different men she most loves and understands.

Gardner is just right as the uptight young man trying to forge his own identity in the shadow of a spotlight-stealing dad. But, like his father, he is smart enough to choose the perfect wife in Josephine (played by Callie Johnson with all the requisite warmth and wisdom).

Bethany Thomas and Stef Tovar in the musical “Big Fish” at Theater at the Center in Munster. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Bethany Thomas and Stef Tovar in the musical “Big Fish” at Theater at the Center in Munster. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

The fantasy numbers light up the stage but never overwhelm the human story, with Ann Delaney as a delicate mermaid; Bethany Thomas as apowerhouse witch; John Stemberg as Karl, the comically alienated giant, and Norm Boucher as the demanding circus owner who tips Edward to Sandra’s love of daffodils. Rachel Sparrow morphs easily from popular coed to woman of broken dreams and Nate Becker is a confident “young Will,” and many others in the large cast have delightful cameos along the way. All are richly aided and abetted by Linda Fortunato’s fine choreographic pastiches and Bill Underwood’s strong music direction of a six-piece band.

The show is richly enhanced by William Ivey Long’s original Broadway costumes. Jackie and Richard Penrod created the simple but beautiful lattice-wood backdrop (with an ideal space for the all-important river), and there is impeccable lighting (by Guy Rhodes), sound (by Barry G. Funderburg) and laugh-inducing props (by Brittney O’Keefe).

This “Big Fish” is well worth reeling in.

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