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Every now and again, even after thirty years in this business, a play comes along that just plain bowls me over. The last time that happened was Once, an NCT production in which all the instruments were played onstage and in massive amounts. Bowled me over. The most recent play to bowl me over is Theatre Raleigh's Big Fish, a full-blown, Equity production of a musical by John August and Andrew Lippa, directed by Eric Woodall. This production pulls out all the stops. It's got sensational music, a beautiful plot, exceptional characters, and a superlative message to relay. This production also sports a sensational cast, superlative musicians, a tremendously versatile set, and magnificent stage presence. A small cast (for a musical) and a small (six-piece) orchestra present a big sound, and the writing — and this production's presentation of that writing — combine to make a show that tugs at the heartstrings and the tear ducts.
Big Fish is an everyman story, about a small-town southern boy who makes a mundane life one that is incredibly rich through his own storytelling. There is nothing particularly unusual about his life: he grows up, falls in love, gets married, has a child, grows old. But it is through his unusual talent for dreams and storytelling that he transforms this mundane life into something magical. We meet Edward Bloom (Timothy Gulan) at the rehearsal dinner of his son, Will (Chris Dwan). Will cautions his dad against "telling his stories," making toasts, or otherwise stealing the thunder from Will and his bride, Josephine (Mili Diaz). It is supposed to be their day, and Will would appreciate it if Dad didn't make it about him. Edward reluctantly agrees, but can't fully manage it. He is thrilled that he's about to be a granddad; every indication is that Jo is pregnant! Will says absolutely not; no one knows and no one is going to know; he can't tell anyone!
Through Will's marriage and a series of flashbacks, Edward's life is laid out for us. He tries to read his eight-year-old son (Keegan Story) a story about Agamemnon and the Trojan War, but gets too bogged down in history. Edward resorts to telling Will stories about his own adventures: the story about The Witch (Chandra Branch), or about The Mermaid (Lydia Tart), for example. Young Will is unimpressed. But Edward tries to get Will excited about being in his own story ("Be the Hero") rather than depending on the stories of others. Will doesn't get his dad, never has, never will. To Will, his dad lives in a fantasy world that he uses to keep the world at bay; real life is too much for him. Will's mom, Sandra (Lauren Kennedy), says that Edward is "magical," but Will can't see it.
Big Fish is presented on a huge, plain, blank stage. Production designer Josh Smith has covered that stage with expressive, open beams that jut out over the audience, drawing us in. Two trap doors in the stage (left and right) allow for mysterious things to happen, like the appearance of a mermaid, fish that beg to be caught, or the sudden appearance of a werewolf. Theatre patrons sit stage right and left, as well as in the house. The impressive musicians, led by musical director Ethan Anderson, present a soundtrack that is nearly all strings (violin, cello, guitar, piano, string bass, and drums) and spectacularly rich. Every single aspect of this production has been designed to get us involved and keep us cheering for Edward as he goes for the gusto: he meets a real-life seer, who the locals say is a witch; befriends a Giant, Carl (Paul Hinkes); joins the circus; meets a werewolf, Amos (Areon Mobasher); and makes a lasting friendship with his high-school sweetheart, Jennie (Shanelle Nicole Leonard). Throughout this show, dynamic and richly-woven songs punctuate Edward's life, like the duet between Will and his mom in which they sing counterpoint ("Magic in the Man") or the dual medical scenes, one in Montgomery, AL, and one in New York, where Will sees his unborn child for the first time ("Stranger") as Edwards gets news of his "ambitious" cancer. Excellent dance and singing make for terrific tales to be told, like the "Alabama Stomp," Edward's outre way to catch a fish; or Edward's first time seeing his future wife ("Little Lamb from Alabama"). But there is a secret in all of Edward's tales, and Will is determined to find it out. When he does, he is able to see his father for the first time in the same way as his mom, and his wife, do.
This everyman tale is magnificently written and dynamically presented. Every intimate detail is a part of the big puzzle that is Edward's life. So magically created is this rich tapestry, that, despite all the theatrics and the stagecraft, by the time the show was over, tears were streaming down my face. It is very seldom that I get to see something that gets me like this one did. It bowled me over. And it will bowl you over, as well.
Big Fish continues through Sunday, July 22. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.