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Review: Indiana premiere of 'Big Fish' proves a catch

May 22, 2015

The characters in musicals can take interesting journeys. Musicals themselves can as well.

Take “Big Fish,” based on the novel and subsequent film. What could have been the big catch of the 2013 Broadway season sank relatively quickly. When I saw the pre-Broadway run in Chicago, I found it flawed but emotionally powerful and anticipated greater success than it found in NYC. Broadway critics, however, spoke of its “hyperventilating big production numbers” and “really big special effects” adding up to “a pulseless bore.”

Sad, I thought. Either the critics didn’t appreciate the show as much as I did or changes were made after Chicago that lessened the impact of the piece.

Whatever the case, at that point in a musical’s journey, it can disappear, undergo further tinkering, await a revisionist revival, or find life in regional theaters.

I’m happy to report, after seeing a production of “Big Fish” at Munster’s Theatre at the Center (running through June 7), that the show remains a charmer. If it never has a force of nature like Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz again in the lead or the amazing visual effects that accompanied the witch sequence, well, we can live with that. I’m just pleased that regional theaters now have another show to add to their list of choices. Seeing it with an audience that seemed unfamiliar with the material confirmed its power to please.

Haven’t seen the film or read the book? Well, suffice to say that it concerns tall-tale-telling father Edward Bloom (Stef Tovar) and his relationship with his stick-in-the-mud son Will (Nathan Gardner). Much of the stage action concerns the fantasies spun by papa, including encounters with the aforementioned witch, a charming giant, a mermaid, and more. Will approaches parenthood as Edward approaches death and, well, have your tissues handy.

Theatre at the Centre, by the way, is a professional company regularly covered by Chicago media. It’s got a fairly conventional lineup of crowd-pleasers for most of the season (upcoming: “All Shook Up,” “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” and “A Christmas Story”), mixing in the occasional less-familiar title such as this (last season it offered the regional premiere of the musical “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”). Its ¾ thrust stage extends into an auditorium only seven rows deep.

That configuration helps rather than hurts “Big Fish.” The set has been kept simple and the choreography effective but not wildly ambitious. Instead, the focus is on the intimate father/son story (and, secondarily, the husband/wife story). In such a close-up environment, it’s more important that the emotional truths get hit rather than every note of Andrew Lippa's score. The show’s creators seem to understand that—I detected some tightening of the book which helps considerable. Shortening the USO and western sequences helped minimize distractions.

I look forward to getting back to Theatre at the Center. And I look forward to future productions of “Big Fish.” After a difficult time in New York, it’s ready to be reeled in by audiences across the country.

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