Through Sept. 9
1742 Church St., N.W.
“Big Fish” is a musical steeped in reality and fantasy. And now Keegan Theatre is tackling both aspects with varying degrees of success.
For as long as Will (Ricky Drummond) can remember, his father Edward Bloom (Dan Van Why) has told outlandish tall tales. When Will was a kid it was OK, but now that he’s starting a family of his own he’d like to know his father’s authentic story. Learning that time is increasingly of the essence, Will revisits both his father and his litany of wild stories in search of the truth.
With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by John August, “Big Fish” is based on Daniel Wallace’s novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 screen adaptation. Like the movie, this show doesn’t unfolds linearly. It’s the eve of Will’s wedding. The groom and his bride, preternaturally upbeat Josephine (Allie O’Donnell), both New York-based journalists who met in Baghdad, have traveled to the Will’s native Alabama to tie the knot. Prior to the festivities, Will asks Edward to refrain from telling any anecdotes and jokes, or making toasts of any kind. While Edward reluctantly agrees, it’s a promise the inveterate storyteller can’t possibly keep.
Will’s request to cease the verbal madness prompts a return to his childhood bedroom where Edward is regaling Young Will (Erik Peyton) with a bedtime story about the time he met a witch (an excellent Kathy McManus) who foretold his death. More stories include running off to join the circus and another involving the relentless pursuit of his then future wife. Edward’s tales are crowded with fairytale stock characters: witch, friendly giant, lovely damsel and rival numbskull Don Price played Eiten Mazia.
Lippa’s songs are a mix of Broadway and Nashville. Despite some awkward lyrics “Sometimes he’s like a tank of laughing gas/sometimes he’s a pain in the ass,” it’s a melodic score sung pleasantly and charmingly delivered by Van Why as Edward. And as smart yet puzzled Will, Drummond is an adequate singer but his acting chops make up for any shortcomings in that area. In the role of Edward’s patient wife Sandra, Eleanor Todd gives a gorgeous rendition of a love song titled “I Don’t Need a Roof” and proves the show’s ultimate standout.
Co-directors Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith’s staging is occasionally stolid, but despite that and August’s often clunky script, they’ve brought out the piece’s humor and some poignancy. And “Big Fish” is a family friendly. Perhaps too family friendly — fantasy segments have the feel of a production geared toward children and tend to drag. Slices of reality fare much better.
Using photographic and animated projections, Patrick Lord sets scenes with Manhattan cityscapes, rural landscapes and firefly-lit forests. Unfortunately, the intimate stage is bordered by yards and yards of distracting sheeting hung with ivy. Craig Miller’s makeup and hair helps enormously in bringing the musical’s more shocking characters to life. McManus’ wild white witch fright wig is terrific. The bearded lady’s (also McManus) full, dark whiskers are perfect. To play the giant, already very tall Grant Saunders is entirely transformed with long dark hair and bushy beard and made more towering atop enormous platform shoes.
The by far more interesting and revealing second act moves swiftly. When illness touches the family, Will digs deeper into Edward’s past. Unexpectedly he comes across instances when his father acted quietly and selflessly. And as Will moves forward, more and more, what’s true and what isn’t, becomes less and less important. And love steps to the fore.