Traveling salesman Edward Bloom and his lovely wife Sandra should be on top of the world. Their successful son Will is getting set to marry a beautiful, sweet-hearted woman they love and Edward has even figured out that Will’s blushing bride Josephine is pregnant. Sadly, though, that joy is tempered by the strained relationship between father and son. It all stems from Will’s resentment about the wildly outlandish tales his father tells of his youth. It seems that Edward can dance fish out of the water, is friends with a giant, and even traveled to finally meet his true love via cannon after his boss, a circus owner who happens to be a werewolf, finally tells him where she is.
So goes the story of Big Fish, currently in production by the Actors Guild of Parkersburg under the direction of David Rexroad. The enchanting musical is written by John August and Andrew Lippa and based on both the original book by Daniel Wallace and the successful Columbia Motion Pictures movie. The words that came to mind as I marveled at the show were fantastical, whimsical, entertaining, and poignant. If you love a good musical that will make you laugh one minute and ugly cry the next, this is just the show for you.
At the heart of the story is Edward Bloom, masterfully portrayed by Guild veteran RJ Lowe. I cannot say enough about the powerful performance of Mr. Lowe. I’ve seen him in several shows and I feel strongly this is his best work to date. This character, in less deft hands, could easily have become an outlandish caricature with no true depth, but Lowe imbues Bloom with a likeability and sympathetic quality that makes the ending all the more heart-wrenching.
Though her part is slightly smaller, I was, as always, simply astonished by the grace and emotional power of Tasha Spencer, who plays Bloom’s devotedly loving wife Sandra. Ms. Spencer, also a veteran of many guild productions, gave a bravura performance as a woman who loves her husband and son completely and wants nothing more than for them to learn to understand each other in the face of tragedy. Her performance of “I Don’t Need a Roof” early in Act II is one of the most beautifully heartbreaking in the history of the Guild. The image of her sitting on the floor, stroking the hair of her ill husband as she sings to him of how she needs nothing in life but for him to stay with her makes me have a lump in my throat just recalling it.
The emotional triangle is completed pleasingly by Eli Tracewell as Will, a young man who somehow grew up to become completely grounded in reality and rationality, despite the fantastic stories that his father has told him all his life. He even writes them down at one point and figures out there are 36 basic stories, each with slight variations. And he’s is completely convinced they are utter hogwash. Will’s emotional turning point, ironically, takes place when he hears a verifiably true story that his father chose never to tell him. And Mr. Tracewell does a fine job of portraying the son’s slow, grudging growth to understand and respect this man he’s always loved but never really felt he’s known.
As seems almost without exception to be true with the Actors Guild, the supporting cast is stellar as well. There were no real weak performances, despite the fact that the cast is quite sizeable. Equally impressive were the technical elements of the show. The set is lovely, as are the at times outlandish costumes. And might I add that there was an honest-to-goodness giant in this show? But all of those wonderfully whimsical performances, sets, and costumes are lost without strong central players, but there is no such worry with this musical. To see RJ Lowe, Tasha Spencer, and Eli Tracewell perform would be worth the price of admission if all that adorned stage were three simple barstools.
So, do I recommend this show? If you’ve gotten to this point and haven’t figured out the answer to that question, then I can’t really help you. I predict Big Fish, which opens Friday, July 28th and runs through August 12th, will play to sold-out audiences, so you need to get your tickets now. Seriously. Stop what you’re doing and buy your tickets. You’ll be glad you did.