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BIG DREAMS, BIG EMOTION: A new musical, ‘Big Fish,’ premieres at City Stage Thursday night

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“Big Fish” opens with big laughs and big emotion this Thursday and runs through December 6.

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Daniel Wallace’s “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” is pure magic—a story of wonder and awe, yet anchored by life’s truths and hard-to-swallow realities. It’s a beautiful parallel of how imagining a life of glitter and gold may not equal the riches one thinks; it may just surpass it.

FISHING FOR LOVE: Heather Setzler and Mark Deese play Sandra and Edward Bloom in City Stage Co.'s 'Big Fish a New Musical,' opening Thursday. Courtesy photo.

FISHING FOR LOVE: Heather Setzler and Mark Deese play Sandra and Edward Bloom in City Stage Co.’s ‘Big Fish a New Musical,’ opening Thursday. Courtesy photo.

Wallace captured the essence of dreaming big—even when death is knocking on the door—in his debut American fantasy drama in 1998. In 2003 Tim Burton brought the world to life, with enigmatic esteem and memorable talent, including the amazing Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Billy Crudup, and Ewan McGregor. In April 2013 in Chicago, its musical adaptation hit the stage for a live audience.

“The musical has elements from the book and movie, as well as a few new takes on characters and situations,” Chandler Davis tells. Davis will be directing the Wilmington premiere of “Big Fish a New Musical,” which opens at City Stage Thursday night. “In the musical, we never see the town of Spectre or Edward in the war,” she continues.

Edward Bloom is the main character, who’s on his deathbed and reliving his “exaggerated” tales of life. His son, Will, stays by his side, aggravated from listening to his father and enduring the old man’s gift of storytelling for the thousandth time. There’s a strain in the father-son relationship, and with Will’s first child on the way, it’s a driving plot-point that brings emotionally enriching dexterity to the forefront for thespians to tackle.

“Mark Deese and Heather Setzler are playing Edward and Sandra Bloom,” Davis tells. They’ll bring their love story to life through a multitude of ages, from 15 to 50, as the story moves from present-day to past and back again. “Greg Beddingfield is playing Will Bloom, Edward’s son, and he has a large range of emotions to tackle in the show,” Davis says. “Greg has a wonderful dry sense of humor that comes through in a lot of his line delivery.”

Playing the characters of Edward’s life—and bringing to life a fantasy world of its own within the show—will be Hunter Wyatt as Will’s wife, Sarah Parsons as The Witch, Brett Young as Amos, the werewolf circus ringleader, and Bryan DeBose as Karl the Giant.

“Bryan is on stilts, and he looks amazing and moves very well,” the director informs. “But every time he comes onstage, I’m going, ‘Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!’ in my head.”

Scenes in Burton’s film drip with fairy tale-like signifigance and Southern Gothic allure. Though the Broadway production of “Big Fish” had a budget that allowed for expansive, amazing visuals, its release to community theaters came with the choice to do a 12-chair set.

“It cuts the cast down from 30 to 12 and is meant to be done on a blank stage with literally 12 chairs,” Davis tells. “We have compromised with a cast of 16 instead of 12. It also includes two new songs that weren’t in the show but were bonus tracks on the cast album.”

Though City Stage Co. will be doing the 12 chairs version, they’ll have an added set for dimension. Chris Keenan has been tasked with constructing a captivating backdrop conducive to portray various places and time changes. “I think I told him we needed ‘a forest with a hint of circus with magical fairy lights, and we might need a river,’” Davis relays.

Likewise, Terrill Williams is constucting colorfully majestic costumes to help maximize wonderment. Multiple costume changes are needed and often quickly. “He is great about listening to everything I say—about what I want to happen visually and taking into consideration the original look for the show, while adding his own touch to the costumes,” Davis tells.

However, the meat of the script really keeps Davis focused more than the visual enticement of “Big Fish.” The struggles between father and son, husband and wife, mortality and immortality, reality and fiction, compassion and apathy all run deep in its words.

“You have a man who has lived an extraordinary life and always considered himself invincible suddenly faced with the prospect of an early ending to his life,” Davis explains. “Then you have a son who is struggling to separate the myth from the man, and finally understands his father before his own son arrives. In between, you have the women who hold their men together with their strength and wisdom.”

The music, according to Davis, adds to the depth of whimsy and emotion that runs rampant throughout the production. With so many big moments in the show—crossing the human experience from first loves to heartaches, new life to big dreams—lyrics and instrumentation add to its momentum.

“One of my biggest pet peeves is when a song’s potential is wasted in a show,” Davis says. “Almost all of the songs in this show really move the plot forward, and the few that focus on characters expressing their feelings are beautifully written. I can’t stress enough how well the lyrics convey the thoughts and feelings of the characters onstage.”

Leading the band—who will be visible in the treeline—is Amanda Hunter, with Nick Lober on bass, Paige Zalman on drums, Justin Lacy on guitar, Adrian Varnam on violin, and Dylan Hefner on cello.   

“I really love ‘The Witch’s Song,’” Davis expresses. “I also like ‘Time Stops,’ which is the first time Edward sees Sandra. It’s neat because the scene literally goes into slow motion the moment Edward lays eyes on his future wife.”

It was a number Davis enjoyed blocking during rehearsals. The frantic pace of Setzler’s lively song and dance is frozen, wherein she immediately must switch gears into slow-motion dancing.

“Heather was like, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ in rehearsal,” Davis quips. “I kept laughing—which I’m sure wan’t great for anyone’s concentration.”

“Big Fish” opens with big laughs and big emotion this Thursday and runs through December 6.

Big Fish a New Musical
Nov., 19-22, 27-29, Dec. 4-6, 8 p.m.
Sunday performances, 3 p.m.
City Stage
21 N. Front St.
Tickets: $20-$25
910-342-0272 or

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