Broadway shows flop for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, what looks appealing on paper turns out to be unappealing when actually on stage. Sometimes, the casting is wrong, sometimes the direction undermines the show instead of helping it. Sometimes, prospective audiences decide that the show isn’t a priority in a city filled with theatrical choices.
Sometimes, when you take a show out of the hothouse that is Broadway and make it available for less harried regional audiences, what wilted in the hothouse blooms when transplanted. And sometimes, the show stays wilted.
Big Fish, the musical closing this Moonlight Stage Productions summer season, illustrates this conundrum. Based on a well-regarded novel that was turned into a well-regarded Tim Burton film, the musical version features a book by John August, the film’s screenwriter, and lush music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, considered one of the best “next generation” composers for musical theatre. The production was well-reviewed in its pre-Broadway run in Chicago, but it never found its footing in New York.
Moonlight’s production is designed to present Big Fish to best effect. It features handsome sets, costumes, and superb projections from an earlier production at Long Beach’s Musical Theatre West, and those elements – especially the projections – are helped along by Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting design. Chris Luessmann’s sound design once again produces remarkably clear results for both individual voices and ensemble work.
Choreographer Karl Warden blends a variety of styles, and a well-trained ensemble executes with precision and grace. Elan McMahon melds all of the musical elements, beautifully, and her work is helped along by three leads (Josh Adamson, Bets Malone, and Patrick Cummings) who sing Mr. Lippa’s score with the romantic fervor it needs. Steven Glaudini’s direction keeps all of the elements of this complex show moving together while still allowing room enough for even the secondary characters (particularly Moonlight vet Ralph Johnson as Dr. Bennett) to come across as unique individuals.
So, with all of these elements meeting or exceeding quality expectations, why isn’t this review a rave?
Big Fish doesn’t wilt. It just doesn’t have the capacity to come to full bloom.
I think it comes down to the story. Bloom family patriarch Edward (Mr. Adamson) is a Southern story-teller, sometimes without a sense of propriety in social situations. He embarrasses his son, Will (Mr. Cummings), whose nose was always in a book as a child (Elliot Weaver) and whose education and adult life seems to eschew all manner of things Southern, particularly his father’s outlandish claims to heroism in the stories he tells.
The show mostly recounts those stories, including meet-ups with a witch (Shirley Johnston), a giant (Dustin Ceithammer), a hairy circus boss (Cris O’Bryon), and a mermaid (Kim Taylor).
Is there anything real about these tales, or are they part of the blarney of a traveling salesman with a long-suffering and faithful wife (Ms. Malone)? When Edward is diagnosed with cancer and given only a little while to live, Will makes sorting out truth from fiction his project to be completed before his father dies.
All of these fantastical tales could be charming, but Mr. August’s book makes both men crusty and stubborn. Of course, there’s some melting before the end, but not enough to produce the weeper of a finale that a father/son reconciliation deserves. Mr. August probably didn’t want to pander, but in a musical with such a romantic score a little pandering would have been a good thing.
Moonlight Amphitheatre is arguably the leading cultural treasure of North County. Located in Vista’s Brengle Terrace Park, the venue provides an idyllic location for enjoying the outdoors while watching high quality performances. Despite opening on an evening where the air temperature hovered in the high 80s, both the venue and the company provided the kind of experience a cultural treasure should provide.
Big Fish doesn’t wilt. It just doesn’t have the capacity to come to full bloom. But, don’t take my word for it. Go see it and judge for yourself.