Monday, July 11, 2016

Big Fish might not be your catch

Chelsea LeValley and Chris Ensweiler in Big Fish. Photo by Erik Stuhaug

Big Fish
Taproot Theatre
Through August 13, 2016

Taproot Theatre almost always has a summer musical. They are, pretty dependably, “feel good” musicals with a heart-warming center. Such a feel-good, heart-warming musical is on tap now. Big Fish is by reliable composer, Andrew Lippa, with book (script) by John August. It’s based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the movie of the same name, also written by John August.

The musical did get to Broadway in 2013, but didn’t last very long. It’s much more suited to being in a small, more unassuming performance house. In that sense, Taproot is perfect for it.


The story, if you’ve missed both the book and the movie, is about a travelling salesman, Edward Bloom (Chris Ensweiler), who doesn’t make a very good dad, we’re told, but tries to make up for it with telling fantastical stories to his son, Will (Young Will, Teigun Pesce, older Will, Tyler Todd Kimmel).

The bulk of the presentation, then, is taken up with Edward’s fantastical stories of a mermaid who wants feet (Carly Squires Hutchinson), a witch who tells Edward how he will die (Sarah Russell), a giant who joins the circus with him (Nick Watson), the ringmaster (Chris Mayse), and some of his small-town classmates (Jed Mathre, Casey Raiha). And there’s a cheerleader girlfriend of sorts, Jenny Hill (Margaret Lamb), who pines for him as he happily leaves town.

Will Bloom grows up and brings home a young bride (Emily Shuel) to Edward and the stalwart woman he marries, Sandra (Chelsea LeValley). Will is resentful of the stories because he feels like he doesn’t know the real Edward. He thinks he’s found a possibly disreputable secret and endeavors to dig it up. Of course, he doesn’t expect what he eventually finds.

This is not a very exciting musical. It goes rather directly “to the heart” and will affect some people that way, even if you feel a bit manipulated. The fantasies are sparsely presented on a rather bare stage, but that’s a fine choice for a muted story.

LeValley does major lifting as both the young, entrancing woman Edward immediately falls for (as part of an adorable singing trio), and as the more mature mother. She gets a couple of great zingers with side-eye that are great jokes. Kimmel and Shuel are lovely as the newly married couple.

Young Mr. Pesce already displays great presence on stage. Lamb goes all in for the cheerleader who loves forever. Russell gets a standout song.

Ensweiler has to wear a lot of hats. Some of them fit. He’s a scampish, high energy man, as Edward, who has to capture the flim-flam to look like a not-so-great dad. He has to dance a bit and sing a lot. The hat that keeps falling off is the singing one. You can see why he got cast, to a certain extent, but this musical is not so compelling that you can overlook a tepid-voiced main character.

The musical fits the kind of choice Taproot likes to make, but it’s not a very good musical. The songs are ok, the story is ok, it’s not very exciting. Here, the musicians are not on stage or visible, which also hurts the actors – there doesn’t seem to be a tv monitor for them to be led by musical director Edd Key.

The music is overly lush. Lippa’s score overdoes it toward the soap opera style, when the musical calls for a much simpler rendition. So, if you can’t see the musicians, it sounds more like pre-recorded stuff that doesn’t go with the musical.

However, there are a significant number of people for whom this is just their summer cup of (ice) tea! It’s not stressful or demanding and you know in the end it will turn out ok.

For more information, call 206-781-9707 or go to www.taproottheatre.org