From left: Scott Haden, Hannah Ripp-Dieter and Ruilin Huang.
The musical theater expertise of Four Seasons Theatre and the trademark innovation of Theatre LILA come together in a dreamy new collaboration: musical Big Fish. You might recognize the story from the 2003 film, or the novel it’s based on, which centers on the complicated relationship between a father and his grown son. The stories that make up the life of Edward Bloom (Scott Haden) spill out throughout the show: mini fairy tales full of witches, giants, mermaids and werewolves. His son, Will, struggles with the far-fetched stories as he tries to understand his dad’s life.
As Will Bloom, Stephen Scott Wormley offered an impeccable performance on opening night. He loves his father and wants a relationship, but questions how to believe an “I love you” that comes from someone who tells such incredibly tall tales. Back in Alabama for his wedding, it’s clear Will hasn’t lived in the South for a while. While his father’s accent is as thick as the mud in the river that runs through the family property, Will has lost his drawl. Wormley’s vocal performances are stunning — his crisp diction and clear tenor voice make him sound like the cross between a pop star and a Disney prince.
At first glance, Scott Haden seems too young to be cast as Edward, and I worried about the apparent lack of age difference between father and son. However, Big Fish is a show that allows suspension of disbelief. Heck, it’s about suspension of disbelief. So, I went with it and — what do you know? — it worked. While some characters have younger versions of themselves (there’s a young Will, sweetly played by Madison sixth grader Elijah E. Edwards, for instance), Edward Bloom and his wife Sandra (Clare Arena Haden) are played by the same actors throughout the show, which weaves back and forth in time. This, too, works. The pair remains almost ageless, as if forever trapped in memory. Their wonderful onstage chemistry isn’t a surprise, as Scott Haden and Clare Arena Haden are married offstage as well.
Big Fish is a show that bestows its attention on small moments as much as the overall plot. Daffodil petals fall from the sky. Actors sway with tiny, lit houses in their arms and duck under blankets to become boulders. Director Jessica Lanius is in her element here, infusing the show with winning dreaminess.
Magic unfolds between characters, too. The second act finds Edward and Will at their most vulnerable, each admitting that he sees the other as “made of stone.” A physical space on the stage emphasizes their emotional distance. In one of the final scenes, Edward curls into Sandra, his larger-than-life persona cast aside as they face the reality that he’s dying. In both scenes, I saw quite a few audience members wiping their eyes. (I might have been one of them.)
The biggest challenge in Big Fish is its score. Songs are hit or miss. There are a few good ones, such as Will’s poignant solo “Stranger,” and the fun ditty “Little Lamb from Alabama.” But you’re not going to leave the theater humming one of the songs from the show. Of course, neither Theatre LILA nor Four Seasons is to blame, but I still wonder how this charming story would have flourished without the music.
However, the music doesn’t stop Big Fish from being a success. The full house offered an enthusiastic standing ovation on opening night and as the cast took their bows, their faces beamed as if they, too, had been swept away by the magic of the show.
It’s not a traditional holiday production, but the whimsy and warmth of Big Fish — which runs through Dec. 11 at the Overture Center — make it an excellent choice for this time of year.