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INSPIRED BY WHIMSY: ‘Big Fish a New Musical’ will leave an impressionable mark

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Overall, “Big Fish a New Musical” is a lovely showcase of clear direction and vision and beautiful local talent.

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In the end, when we’ve left this life and the last gathering on our behalf revolves around a eulogy, how will we be remembered? One by one, people will tell our stories, reveal our character, talk about our passions, and discuss the mark we imprinted upon them and their lives. It can be intimidating to face—the end of life—unless you’re Edward Bloom.

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.

Daniel Wallace’s raconteur—the protagonist he wrote about in his 1998 debut novel “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythical Proportions”—is a genuinely endearing man. Edward Bloom manages to be the life of any party with his tall tales that paint magical places with farfetched people who manage to teach him all major life lessons. Edward always manages to be the center of attention with his graphic imagination. Everyone gravitates toward him, including his wife, Sandra, and especially his friends: a werewolf ringleader of a circus, a giant named Karl, a witch who foretells his death, and a mermaid who teaches him about love.

Bloom’s fantasies inspire in their whimsy. At least they inspire everyone except the one person he’s been trying to win over his whole life: his son, Will. It’s not until Edward is lying on his deathbed that his offspring discovers a secret unbeknownst to him and understands the depth of his father’s being—why everyone has loved this man, this big fish in a small pond. In a touching story that every family, but especially every father and son, should see, “Big Fish” is a lesson in riches of love and life, about carrying forth a legacy, and honoring a loved one for all his tender characteristics and his faults.

The movie, directed by Tim Burton, made a splash in 2003 and in 2013 made it to the stage in a musical version, with book by John August and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. Locally, City Stage Co. is premiering it every weekend through Dec. 6, directed by Chandler Davis, with choreography by Kendra Goehring-Garrett and music direction by Amanda Hunter. Davis has outdone herself in the approach to making this show stand on its own accord, and in the shadows of such a visually fascinating movie. The set is minimal but nonetheless magical, hinting at a forest of trees that align the perimeter of the stage, decorated by white lights. Red and white letters, spelling “Big Fish,” illuminate above the band, who are visible in the risers above where the action takes place onstage. With minimal props, the transition of scenes transforms the set from forest to home, circus to graveside and beyond. The hodgepodge of colorful characters dictate where the audience is in Edward Bloom’s life. Flashes of Edward’s life set up the tales across Alabama—from high-school football player, to circus worker, to traveling salesman.

The man of the hour is played by a fascinating Mark Deese. Deese approaches Edward Bloom with sturdy aplomb, marked by passionate imagination. I love Deese’s genteel way, from the sweet touch of his wife’s shoulder to a tap on his son’s back. It’s tail-ended by fiery animation, as he wants to impress his son so desperately. His plight’s palpable throughout the show, starting early on during bedtime story scenes with a young Will (played by an adorably precocious Wyatt Unrue). Deese effortlessly shows us how Edward Bloom walks to the beat of his own drum—rather than reading about the Trojan War, he’d prefer to talk about the time he taught a fisherman how to catch fish by doing the “Alabama Stomp.” It’s a standout scene that will stick with audiences for days after the show’s end—not just because of its catchy, down-home choreography, but in the Americana music that backs it.

The only other scene to top it is when Edward meets Sandra, played compassionately and tenderly by Heather Setzler. “Little Lamb From Alabama” into “Time Stops” shows how live theatre can be as jaw-dropping as any CGI or fancy camera cuts and angles on a screen. Setzler and her Alabama Lambs (Alexandra Harris and Jordan Davis) audition for the circus with a fast cheer routine, “Little Lamb from Alabama.” In the middle of it, tempo changes as the song turns into “Time Stops,” by Deese. The girls begin cheering in slow motion, to parallel Edward’s feeling of time standing still and enduring love at first sight with Sandra. It’s magical—mythical, yes, even in epic proportions. My theatre companion and I literally gasped in awe.

Setzler is so brilliant; her talents strengthen with every performance. I felt incomplete watching her play Sandra, like every woman should aspire to her mannerisms as a wife or girlfriend: gingerly doting and caring and in the presence of every moment. Her singing voice is powerful yet considerate (“I Don’t Need a Roof,” “Two Men in My Life”). Setzler’s chemistry with Deese isn’t sizzling or lustful, but more refined in its profundity. With her son, Will, played by Gregory Beddingfield, she takes on protector and mediator between father and son.

Beddingfield’s Will isn’t what I anticipated in this character’s approach. I always think of him with quiet reserve bubbling into soft frustration. Beddingfield plays it more with a forceful, anxious acumen, underscored by a whiny vocal pitch during songs like “Stranger” and “Be the Hero.” It seems incongruent with a hard-news journalist; somehow this Will feels less mature. However, I can see immaturity plays into the script of an unforgiving son who must face mortality and the concept of one’s truth. (I get anxious just thinking about it, myself.)

The fantasy scenes bring to life the show’s eccentricities and counterbalance the seriousness of the reality scenes. The ensemble just nails it in being mischievous, capricious and oddly lovable. They literally breathe life into Edward Bloom’s big tales, especially the wide-eyed, crazed witch, played by Sarah Parsons, and her witches coven, which manifest from trees in a forest. And Bryan DeBose rocks it on stilts, and with a very baritone voice, as Karl the Giant. What the audience can’t visualize through character and props, they’re forced to imagine, just as Edward Bloom would want us to do.

The reality scenes provide some lull in the show. Mainly, Edward Bloom’s fascination with water, and being in it a lot, seems to get lost in this stage version. Put simply, I know the show shouldn’t be the movie, but I did miss seeing Edward and Sandra’s bathtub scene; it’s a touchstone of the story that tears me up just thinking about it. During some reality scenes, chemistry waxes and wanes. But isn’t that apropos to real life? Facing the death of a loved one is simultaneously heartbreaking and touching. Without a doubt, more than a few tears will fall during this show (tissues should be handed out with every program, in fact). 

When a movie or book becomes a musical—especially a beloved one like this—whether the songs will propel the plot or weigh them is a plausible worry. Most of the songs in “Big Fish a New Musical” are lovely (“Ashton’s Favorite Son”), yet some also become cheesy in their attempt to be poignant (“Daffodils”). But the band—Justin Lacy, Myron Harmon, Nick Loeber, Paige Zalman, Dylan Hefner, and Adrian Varnam—showcase amazing musicality through standard Broadway compositions into down-home romps and soft lullabies.

Overall, “Big Fish a New Musical” is a lovely showcase of clear direction and vision and beautiful local talent. It will fill the heart and pull its strings, while emblazoning the imagination. 

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

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