“Big Fish” is a quirky, charming, heart-touching if somewhat scattered new musical about the tempestuous bond between a dreamer of a father and his skeptical, literal son.
Dad is a traveling salesman from small-town Alabama who embroiders, exaggerates and fantasizes events in his life to be more interesting to his kid. But his now-grown son wonders if it’s all harmless fun or whether it masks something darker and more deceitful.
It ends up pitting love and trust against truth, which sounds a little heavy. But this regional premiere by Music Theatre Wichita is a big and gaudy circus – sometimes literally – that is surprisingly entertaining. Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 movie, this 2013 musical by composer Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family,” “The Wild Party”) and writer John August lives a lot in a never-never land of flashbacks and fantasy rather than linear storytelling.
It bounces back and forth from hard-edged reality of disappointment and exasperation to more pleasant climes of golden memories and wish fulfillment involving a prophetic witch, a gorgeous mermaid, a hulking giant and a cunning werewolf. Even the historical eras are a little suspect for one man’s lifetime, ranging from a decidedly 1920s college setting to 1930s water conservation project to 1940s World War II to 21st-century cellphones.
Despite some disjointed plot points and a rush to resolution late in the second act, there are several glorious moments, musically and choreographically, that carry us merrily and thrillingly along. And the performances of the leads seem so natural and effortless that they draw us into a comfortable place like a warm, down-home hug.
Vincent Corazza, making his MTW debut, is the storytelling dad, Edward Bloom. Corazza is a shameless charmer with sure-footed presence whose quick grin and a ready wit take charge of the stage – and the spotlight, as is his character’s wont – every time he appears. His singing voice is refreshing and engaging rather than overly dramatic. His “Be the Hero of Your Story,” an entreaty to his young son, is a joyous, toe-tapping romp. And his romantic “Time Stops,” when he first spies the love of his life, is pure magic.
Corazza also has the chameleon capacity to convincingly go from exuberant teenager to besotted young husband to dying patriarch, conveyed through subtle body language rather than just surface cosmetics.
Skyler Adams is Will Bloom, the questioning, estranged son, who is determined to discover his father’s real story before it is too late. It’s a darker change of pace from Adams’ past appearances here, such as last year’s breezy con man in “Catch Me If You Can” or several silly characters, including Not-Dead Fred, in “Spamalot.”
Adams has a strong voice that conveys emotions beautifully, such as his lament – “Stranger” – when he realizes that he really doesn’t know who his father is.
Kim Huber, a longtime MTW favorite leading lady (“The King and I,” “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” “My Fair Lady”), plays Sandra, the wife and mother caught between the feuding husband and son that she loves equally. It’s a smaller role than we’ve seen her do, but her lovely soprano and graceful presence shine.
Deep-bass Timothy Hughes (think Righteous Brothers’ Bill Medley) is both amusing and poignant as Karl the Giant, a well-read, philosophical outcast that the salesman draws out with friendship. Local favorite Timothy W. Robu is a gruff, blustery delight as circus owner Amos Calloway, who is a surprising matchmaker while harboring a pretty hairy secret (literally).
The eye-popping costumes, from dancing trees in swirling capes to colorful circus performers to cowpokes and saloon gals – not to mention a sparkly, sexy mermaid and witch – are the lavish Broadway originals designed by William Ivy Long. Parts of the original Broadway set, including a huge field of daffodils, are dazzlingly well-utilized.
It’s a big show, and director Wayne Bryan proves himself a master at keeping track of many constantly moving elements and characters. There are many scenes, which change silently and quickly through a clever combination of 3-D set pieces, digital projections (including a flowing river at the front of the stage over the orchestra) and opaque scrims that go transparent when lights come up to reveal a new scene. The flow is seamless.
And choreographer Peggy Hickey with her associate Ricky Bulda create half a dozen big, bold production numbers that pay tribute to everything from tap to ballroom to hoedown to even some circus gymnastics. This is the lavish spectacle that we come to live theater to see.
If you go
What: Andrew Lippa and John August turn Tim Burton’s quirky film about a tale-spinning father and his skeptical son into a fanciful 2013 musical
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
Additional performances: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $28-$64 evenings, $26-$56 matinees; call 316-265-3107