REVIEW: "Big Fish" — Orange County Children's Theatre (OCCT), Huntington Beach
Updated: Jun 20
"A Masterwork With a Moral"
HUNTINGTON BEACH: Where fantasy wages war with reality in “Big Fish, a New Broadway Musical,” a delightful father-and-son tale based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 beloved novel, "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions." In one corner, there is Edward Bloom, played by the sensational Nick Daniel, a traveling salesman from backwater Alabama, and given to spinning tall tales about mermaids and giants to fill in the gaps in his otherwise ordinary life. In the other corner, there is his son, Will, a sharply implosive Ian Decock, a practical “just-the-facts” journalist who’s never really connected with his often absent, now-ailing dad, and is ironically facing the prospect of fatherhood himself.
Orange County Children’s Theatre (OCCT) takes a deep dive into repairing this fractured father-son relationship with their newest and most moving reinvention yet. With book by John August and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family Musical”), the musical officially opened last Friday at the historic Huntington Beach High School Auditorium and is presently in its second and last weekend with the final performance this Sunday, August 18th.
OCCT’s version has been staged on a more human scale without sacrificing imagination or the magical elements, focusing on this whopper of a potboiler, where fish become human and humans become fish — and where a man learns to understand his father in a way he's never been able to before. In 2003 an American Gothic fantasy film (also titled “Big Fish”) was released, based on Wallace’s novel, which was directed by Tim Burton and starred Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Miley Cyrus, Steve Buscemi and Danny DeVito, among others.
But, for those who did not see the movie and have yet to see the musical, “Big Fish” is the story of Edward, his tall tales, his beloved wife and his only son, Will, who has little patience for what he perceives to be pure nonsense. Everyone likes a good story, unless you’ve heard it a thousand times. And Will isn't amused. He hasn't been for years. He's sick of all the fibs and exaggerations. He's tired of hearing the lies. As he sees it, Edward’s recounting of his alleged fantastic creatures and escapades have long gone from being good fun to pathetic babbling.
From his son's point of view, his father’s timing is off. He spent his whole life, so he says, having amazing adventures and meeting unforgettable characters while on the road selling his wares, then telling those stories to his son, over and over again. In fact, Will now considers his father a tireless blowhard, and Edward repeats the same stories to him so relentlessly you fully expect Will’s eyeballs to roll up into his head and be replaced by those large X’s you see in the comics.
But Edward is now dying, and his wife, Sandra (Daisy Tye), has called their son home to Ashton to reconcile with the father he hasn’t spoken to for so many years.What follows is a fantastical feast of the senses through the imagination of an old man remembering his life exactly how he would like to remember it. A magical town. A colorful circus. A gentle giant. A mermaid? Is any of it real? Does it really matter if it isn't?
Director Jenny Moon Shaw wisely builds Edward’s story around those myths. Wonderfully engaging Parker Bonner steps in to play the young Edward, and the tall tales begin. A masterwork with a moral, Daniel Wallace’s writing has drawn comparisons to stories like "The Odyssey," "The Music Man" and "The Wizard of Oz."
The narrative shifts between two timelines. There’s the present-day real world, where sixty-year-old Edward Bloom is facing his mortality and there’s the storybook past, covering Edward’s teenage years when he first encounters the witch, and later the giant, a beautiful mermaid, and then the love of his life, Sandra.
As it happened, one day as Edward walks under a circus Big Top, he becomes mesmerized by his first glimpse of Sandra, and time crawls into slow motion, knowing full well this is the woman he is destined to marry. Once Edward gives his heart fully and completely to his one and only, he remains a one-woman man the rest of his days, resisting temptations to stray at every turn. "I'm in love with my wife," he tells one interested woman. "From the day I met her to the day I die, she's the only one."
For the most part,“Big Fish” finds theatrically inventive ways to reel audiences into its central love story. But in this case, the primary love story isn’t boy-meets-girl, it’s father-hooks-son. And Edward Bloom is quite a catch. Although some differences are never resolved, there's an invisible undertow of love and respect here that draws the two together before it's too late. They begin the show alienated and silent ("I didn't see anything of myself in my father, and I don't think he saw anything of himself in me, either"). But unspoken forgiveness and empathy are the trophies they share before Edward passes on.
The story is slightly different than the movie. The town of Spectre and Edward's quest to save it from destruction has been folded into Edward's home town of Ashton. Don’t expect to see Ping and Jing, either, the Korean singers who are literally joined at the hip, or even the ugly witch with the putrid eye. This “Big Fish” is a bit tamer. This witch (Sophia Ruiz) is far cuter, and uses only the standard-issue crystal ball. Also, in the musical version, the witch and Jenny Hill are two distinct characters. In the film, Jenny Hill and the witch are morphed as the same person. The character of Norther Winslow, which was played by Buscemi in the film, doesn't exist at all in the musical. Confused yet?
In less capable hands, “Big Fish” could play like a tribute to a liar’s pathology. But, in trying to reshape the world around his fantasy, Edward wants to right the world’s wrongs at the same time. The fact that he can’t do that is, unfortunately, his biggest regret. The tension inherent in this fable of a father with his head in the clouds and a son with his feet on the ground brings out a bracing maturity in Mr. Decock’s characterization and gives the show its haunting gravity. As the son learns to talk to his father on the father’s terms and still see him clearly, “Big Fish” then takes on the transformative power of art.
The images and animations, designed by Jess Parrott’s team, creates fabulously evocative virtual sets of light when projected onto the proscenium, while Joanne Booth’s costumes, especially for the mythological creatures and circus performers, are elaborate and dazzling. Meanwhile, Director/Choreographer Jenny Moon Shaw leads a talented cast through a succession of intriguing tableaux and dances, strongly assisted by Bria Booth, who also serves as Stage Manager. It’s a stunning spectacle overall, presented in this ornate theater with the themes and weight of the story, balanced perfectly with aspiring new stars.
Producers of the show are Debbi Parrott, Irene Rocha and Mike Gooch; the amazing Set Design, doors and windows hidden by strategically stacked boxes, was brilliant. Prop Masters were Heather Jaramillo and Brittany Hollar. Hair and Makeup magically applied by Bonnie Saavedra, and Sound Cue’s by Ashley Turnbaugh (who also, along with Sarah Young, choreographed the Telegrammers). That young song and dance quartet consists of Shelby DeLamater, Brady Hollar, Lily Jacobs and Mark Moniak.
The excellent acrobatics and choreography heightened the fairytale aspects of the show tremendously with energetic numbers such as “Ashton’s Favorite Son” and “Be the Hero” and the first act’s ending number, “Daffodils.” Vocal Music Director Michelle Hernandez did a phenomenal job of bringing out rich harmonies in the ensemble numbers clearly and accurately.
Mr. Decock’s powerful voice soared in such numbers as “Stranger” and “How it Ends,” and was matched equally well by great acting choices, bringing a charismatic energy to the stage. Mr. Daniel’s performance is played with whimsical bravado in a touching, towering performance, and was believable in creating a character much older than himself. His duet with Will,“Fight the Dragons,” was a standout number in the show, and might even require tissues.
Ms. Tye’s strong, consummate voice really filled the theater in such numbers as “Red, White & True” and “I Don’t Need a Roof.” Other notable performances included Scottie Richard as Amos Calloway and JT Nelson as Karl who each brought some liveliness and humor to the show in their respective roles.
In addition, Novelee Smedley plays Past Sandra (“Little Lamb,” “Time Stops”), Gemma Pedersen is Josephine, Stephanie Dien plays the Adult Jenny and Jennifer Woo portrays Teen Jenny. Scottie Richard is Amos, Bennett Sanders-Park is Young Will, Matthew Berry is Don Price, Dave Elliott is Zacky Price, Owen Gooch is the Young Child Don, Devyn Dilts is the Young Child Zacky, Ella Riem is the Mermaid, Abby Young is Red Fang, and Canon Clevenger plays both Dr. Bennett and the Judge.
The Fisherman is Marcus Brooks, the Justice Soloists are Scottie Richard and Sean Hawkins, General Patterson is Gavin Yauchzee, Ashton Mayor is Josiah Gwaltney and Will’s Son is William Riem. The Alabama Lambs are Claire Kalinowski, Daphne Moyes, Sami Walker and Abby Young. The USO leads are Amiah Robinett, Haley Dang, Adrienne Morrow, Aly West and Adrianna McGrath.
A host of Ensemble members make up various segments and dance groups within the show and are literally too numerous to mention, but simply superb performances one and all. A complete list of cast members are on the OCCT website.
“Big Fish” is a show that tattoos its heart on its sleeve; it’s about coming to terms with a life that sometimes feels dull. It's about family bonds. Losses. Secrets that shouldn't be so secret. And the great value of just being real in everyday life. In the show, you feel like you're watching something deep and powerful, sourced by a work of fine literature, propelled into awareness by a potent musical that makes us feel we can control, if not transcend, the story of the end of our lives.
Come see that musical this weekend. Again, it closes on Sunday, and tickets are going fast. Luckily there’s a balcony in that theater! Ticket information can be obtained at http://occt.org/
This show is Very Highly Recommended!
The Show Report