There is a reason we tell each other stories that go beyond a recollection of the facts. We like to think we’re our own historians, and sometimes we are, but we don’t make myths as a matter of record. The stories we make into legends capture something about who we are that our receipts never could.
Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Big Fish is about a man whose realities and fantasies may as well be one in the same. We follow Edward Bloom (Billy Hartung), a traveling salesman who lives his life like it’s the lost epilogue to Homer’s The Odyssey. He comes home after a trip to tell his son Will (Mario Williams) the story of how he taught a man how to fish via dancing – specifically, by using the fabled Alabama Stomp. We flash back to that moment, with Edward patiently hearing out a fisherman afraid for his starving family, and a song begins. The music soars as Edward tap dances entire schools of fish into the sky, and his dumbfounded companion, in awe, begins to stomp along as the waters rage around them and fish hail down onto the earth.
“If you give a man a fish,” Edward tells his son, “he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man the Alabama Stomp, you feed his soul!”
The man, the fish, and the music fade, and there is a beat of silence. Will immediately asks, “what the hell does that mean?”
This is the push and pull of Big Fish: idealism vs. realism. Decades go by, and Will (now played by Matt Calvert) is a reporter engaged to be married to a fellow journalist, Josephine (Hope Anthony). Will meets with Edward before the wedding and practically begs him not to tell any stories or give any toasts. All it takes is this conversation to give us an enormous amount of context for their relationship. For Edward, the world seems to naturally orbit him, and it puts his head in the clouds; Will’s feet are planted firmly in the ground, and he’s still waiting for his father to come down to his level. The question is: are either of these men capable of meeting in the middle?
Front Porch’s production is as emphatic in its energy as its lead character. Big Fish is a series of explosive revelries and fantastic characters, and the potential for the show to become bittersweet is swept away by its sheer joy for life.
Just like the characters onstage, we the audience are yanked into Edward’s orbit. Billy Hartung’s performance isn’t exuberant, but his ability to take in the magic of his world as a matter, of course, can be invigorating. There’s a moment in this where he is shot out of a cannon by a werewolf onto the college campus Sandra (Kristiann Menotiades), his future wife, is attending – there’s, uh, a lot going on there, but it makes sense in context, I promise – and when he lands he gets almost immediately to flirting with her. Why not?
The show is directed by Spencer Whale, who seems keen on imbuing the slice of life portions of the musical with as much character as its colorful fantasies. The cast is as effective musically as they are dramatically, and there are some memorable moments: Kristiann Monotiades leads a fun number during a dance audition that shifts suddenly into a slow-motion meet cute, and I was struck by her ability to be simultaneously intimate and energetic. Elizabeth Boyke’s Jenny Hill is, at first, a one-note object of affection for Edward, but she becomes much more return during the play’s final moments, and in just one scene is able to remind us of the difficult humanity of the narrative through her performance alone.
Big Fish is a musical with a purpose, and so it is the best kind of musical. Newcomers to the genre uniformly pose the same question after their first show: “but why did it have to be a musical?” Screenwriter John August and musician Andrew Lippa’s original work blends fantasy and musicality so easily with the juxtaposition between theater and dance, that it begs the opposite question: is there any reason why this shouldn’t be a musical?
The world itself also deserves praise. Gianni Downs’ set design is rustic, yet vibrant, and complements Big Fish‘s elevated Americana really well. Even with the show’s aesthetically patchwork quality, it never descends into ‘indie-film of the moment’ design. It’s got a sense of handcrafted wonder to it, but at the same time feels like it’s built on sturdier stuff, both literally and artistically.
There are a few flies in the soup, though, especially in the larger narrative of the show. We learn almost immediately in the first act that Will is about to have a child. Considering how Edward and Will are such obvious foils for one another as father and son, the narrative instinct to make Will’s child a vessel for whatever lesson Will is going to learn is jarring in how direct it is. For as much joy the show builds, that’s just too saccharine of a plot point to hit the mark, and it’s made doubly frustrating by the fact that it already has a pretty great framing device in Edward’s penchant for skipping stones.
That said, Big Fish‘s conclusion is well earned. Will demands a certain amount of party-pooping by nature of his character, but Matt Calvert allows us to believe in his ability to change and grow. By the time we’re in the middle of one more new story from Edward, we’re already so won over that we’re willing to follow him just about anywhere.
Front Porch’s latest pulses with the heartbeat of the form, and is an easy recommendation to most any kind of audience.
Big Fish runs at the New Hazlett Theater through August 27. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of Martha D. Smith