David Moan as Edward Bloom, Emmi Bills as Sandra Bloom, and John Reed as Young Will in Encore Theatre's production of Big Fish. Photos by Michelle Anliker Photography.
There is some magic taking place down in Dexter MI, at The Encore Musical Theatre, coming off their big hit “Million Dollar Quartet” as well as the company’s ten year anniversary. They also have just put out a version of “Big Fish,” a musical adaptation of the 2003 Tim Burton film, that is both light, fun, and misleading. In a sense, I felt a bit blindsided finding out the theatre was doing the “12 chairs version” (basically gutting the amount of ensemble members needed for the production - along with a few songs) and while I get that it makes sense for a smaller theater like The Encore, however, that has never stopped them before from raising the bar and expectations.
Last October I watched while they did Stephen Sondheim’s gigantic “Sweeney Todd,” followed by the whip smart “Anything Goes” and, most recently, “Million Dollar Quartet.” On their own merits, they each possessed an engrossing script, rock solid visuals, and fun character performances. It solidified that The Encore was indeed a top dog in regional theater.
I loved all those shows. I didn’t love “Big Fish,” because I felt The Encore took a step down in quality. No doubt, it features a slew of memorable performances (more on that later) and admirable direction both musically and stage wise. The production just feels small because, deep down, I wondered how the traditional production would’ve been on that stage.
Encore regular, and rock star, David Moan is back owning his craft on stage playing Edward Bloom, a character that spouts crazy jargon, and unleashes tall tales regularly. Edward is like the relative you can’t shake at a reunion, he tells you the same story over and over even though you’ve probably heard it about a dozen times. The play, like the 2003 film, is told through his perspective, as he recounts decades of history: the time he met up with the wicked witch of the swamp (Anna Birmingham delivering a solid rendition of “I Know What You Want”); how he joined the circus under a shady ringleader named Amos (Sebastian Gerner taking a surprise supporting turn here); meeting a friendly giant named Karl (Logan Balcom) and searching for the love of his life: a small town girl named Sandra (Emmi Bills.)
In addition, Bill Eric Robinson plays Will Bloom, son of Edward, whom is being told all of these stories by his father just before he’s to be married to his, I presume, high school sweetheart Josephine (Kimberly Alley). Alley and Robinson definitely look good to next each other, and have the pipes to sustain the run. Robinson has been a steady performer since “Sweeny” and Alley matches his attitude verbatim. They both have a great future in theater.
At the gooey heart of this, otherwise, family-centric melodrama is a tale of an estranged father and his son. Edward is fading from view in his old age and wants to make sure his legacy can leave an impression. Are all of his stories true, or just a result of his aging imagination? We can’t be sure, although of course there is also the reliable theory that things are true if you believe them to be (it worked for Tinkerbell right?)
With as complex a character as Edward is, it’s no surprise to anyone that Moan has been tasked with carrying the show on his shoulders, and he’s proven such a reliable draw that you won’t ever have a bad time watching him on stage. Bills, playing his supporting wife, also steals key moments with her engaging sentimentality.
Under the direction of Thalia Schramm, and fine musical direction by Leah Fox - she was one of the actresses who stole the show in November’s “Anything Goes” - “Big Fish” is, at least, able to make a moderate splash on the stage. But even the minimalistic set by Kristen Gribbin feels a bit small in comparison to the last few shows that have graced The Encore stage (“Quartet” managed to fit an entire recording studio dressed from head to toe with a smorgasbord of eye candy). This set is very bare, forcing the pressure on lighting and the acting to propel the story forward.
Sure, the scene changes flow smoothly, and the lighting helps a bit, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a smudge disappointed. Not to mention, (and this has to do with the pesky “12 chair version”) some of the emotional connectivity is lost between Edward and Will. I remember one scene towards the end wondering where a particular song was; only to find out, it had been cut. I turned to my friend out of confusion and asked “What just happened?” Thankfully, such iconic and catchy songs like “Be The Hero” and “Daffodils” were left untouched. Equally the ending is still very much as you remember it, with the music and tone culminating in one giant emotional swoop, it’s a gentle reminder of why we enjoy “Big Fish” in the first place.
And while Rachel Costantino’s choreography deserves praise, some of the dance numbers were a bit distracting to the overall viability of the plot. I found myself trying to get invested in a certain scene, and whereas dancing can sometime help tell the story, here it didn’t connect with me the way I’d hoped. That being said, the rowdy opening night crowd seemed to really enjoy everything on display.
The main reason to see “Big Fish,” is for the actors who all shine through the material. Including the ensemble (Meg McNamee, Dominic Dorset, Luciana Piazza, Dan Morrison, Monica Spencer, James Fischer, Connor Giles, John Reed and Ethan Steiner). This isn’t by any means bad theater. I’ve seen bad theater, and this doesn’t even come close. The whole cast looked like they were having a good time, which is all you can ever really ask for. Perhaps that’s a testament to The Encore brand, that even when one show comes up a bit short, they still manage to produce a decent and serviceable musical.
“Big Fish” continues every weekend through May 20th. To purchase tickets and find out showtimes: visit encoretheatre.org or call the box office at 734-268-6200.