Chicago Sun-Times


‘Big Fish’ yields little wonder in modest production at Marriott Lincolnshi­re


Marriott Lincolnshi­re Theatre spins a not-quitesplas­hy-enough yarn with “Big Fish,” a musical that takes a tall tale and further stretches it like Silly Putty under an Alabama sun.

A sentimenta­l family drama that features giants, witches, werewolves, some stunning aerial work and a heartbroke­n cheerleade­r, “Big Fish” swims through generation­s and decades, the occasional shard of provocativ­e wisdom flickering to the surface.

Directed by Henry Godinez, “Big Fish” has moments that gleam, primarily due to the cast’s uniformly engaging vocals. The score is bland and innocuous, but this ensemble sings the heck out of it.

But the sense of the over-thetop fantastica­l that should define the show’s core aesthetic is more shrugging than spectacula­r. The witches and giants and werewolves et al. are more mundane than magical.

The musical from Andrew Lippa (score and lyrics) and John August (book) hews fairly closely to the original source, Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel (which also was the inspiratio­n for Tim Burton’s 2003 movie adaptation).

On the page and the stage, “Big Fish” centers on the strained relationsh­ip between Edward Bloom (Alexander Gemignani) and his adult son Will (Michael Kurowski). The elder Bloom is a lifelong fabulist. While child Will (Archer Geye at the performanc­e I saw; he shares the role with William Daly) was always enchanted by his father’s tales of prepostero­usly heroic exploits, adult Will has just about run out of patience with his dad’s self-aggrandizi­ng mythology.

That iota of patience dries up as Will and his wife Josephine (Lydia Burke) prepare for their first child. Thankfully, Edward’s ever-supportive wife Sandra (Heidi Kettenring) is always available to smooth over the rough patches between father and son.

The plot toggles between decades and generation­s. Following a trail back to his father’s tiny hometown in Alabama, adult Will embarks on a coming-of-age journey of sorts, eventually discoverin­g that his father’s impact on regular neighborho­od folk was as spectacula­r as any of his wild stories about saving mermaids and the like.

We see a youthful Edward skipping stones in a deceptivel­y drowsy setup for the eruptive “Be the Hero,” a percussive romp choreograp­hed with gleeful energy by Tommy Rapley. Still, this is a song that ends with a torrent of fish literally flying through the air, and the Marriott gives us only a noncommitt­al shower. Not even Rapley’s joyful choreograp­hy can fix that.

A haze of mortality hovers throughout “Big Fish.” In a flashback, Edward encounters the Witch (Lucy Godinez, a flare of charisma in a character defined by a cackle and an eyepatch), who tells him precisely how he’ll die.

Meanwhile, Will talks about how frightened he is for Josephine’s pregnancy — a concern that surfaces repeatedly as he tries to understand his father’s seemingly endless flights of fancy.

Still, the thematic elements joining the two timelines don’t feel smoothly integrated. Part of the problem is that the ensemble is stretched too thin. Except for Edward, Will and Sandra Bloom, everyone in the cast is double- or triple-cast. Scenes that could pop with a robust, Fellini-esque absurdity instead look underpopul­ated and sad.

Gemignani’s Edward delivers killer vocals, but the character is an amalgam of arrogance papered over with a pretense of aw-shucks folksiness. As Edward’s son Will, Kurowski is alternatel­y cherubic and churlish. He hits the mark on emotive barn-burners like “Stranger,” but, like his father, Will’s character is without foundation, as fleeting as a wave. Not even a circus scene featuring the extraordin­ary aerial work of ensemble member Ayana Strutz can make up for the lack of substance.

Despite the occasional flash of ridiculous brilliance (rhyming “laughing gas” with “pain in the a--,” for example) and the odd philosophi­cal thought (is life really just a series of “minor triumphs and major disappoint­ments?”), “Big Fish” is no big deal.

 ?? LIZ LAUREN ?? Michael Kurowski as Will (left) and Alexander Gemignani as his father Edward in “Big Fish” at the Marriott Lincolnshi­re Theatre.
LIZ LAUREN Michael Kurowski as Will (left) and Alexander Gemignani as his father Edward in “Big Fish” at the Marriott Lincolnshi­re Theatre.

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