SpeakEasy made a bold choice this spring when they took on John August and Andrew Lippa’s musical reworking of Big Fish, inspired by the acclaimed novel by Daniel Wallace and the subsequent 2003 Tim Burton film starring Ewan McGregor, Jessica Lange, Marion Cotillard, and Helena Bonham Carter. In an attempt to portray a refreshing new adaptation for the New England premiere, August and Lippa made the decision to pare the cast down from the Broadway version’s original 26 to a slimmer cohort of 12, then replaced the 14-person orchestra with a lively six-member bluegrass band.
The result is a dynamic, energized performance that flows with charming zeal, characterizing the enchanting narrative movement of the story. For those unfamiliar, Big Fish is a magical, heartfelt recounting of the life of traveling salesman Edward Bloom, whose epic stories of adventure and romance both thrill and mystify his more stoic son, Will. Right as Will and his young wife learn they are going to have their first child together, Edward falls terminally ill—and it’s up to Will to wade through the layers of fantasy his father has constructed in search of the truth.
While the more compact cast allows for a greater sense of magic and mobility, the most disconcerting aspect of the performance comes into play during the many flashbacks that occur as Edward’s tall tales are recounted. There are two actors portraying Will Bloom: the adorable Jackson Daly, and his adult counterpart Sam Simahk. Edward’s wife, Sandra, is the sharp Aimee Doherty, who is ambiguous enough to seamlessly transition between her high school, college, and middle-aged self with a wig-and-costume change. But Edward Bloom himself is played throughout by the, er, more mature Steven Goldstein, who looks a bit out of place hitting on high school cheerleaders and mermaids while throwing around a football.
At its core however, Big Fish is a love story between father and son, and it centers on the familial obstacles parents and children face as their very similarities stand in the way of truly understanding one another. For Will, who knows his father’s past only through the fantastic stories the older man chooses to tell, the present version of his dad is the only one he trusts. He, and therefore the audience, has no clear picture of Edward as a young man, because in his estimation everything he’s heard about that young man is a fiction, purely invented and decidedly unreal.
Speaking of Will, the performance is elevated by Sim Simahk, who commands the stage with his impressive range, making up for the weaker voices of Goldstein and Doherty in their respective duets. Simahk is the kind of actor who demands to be remembered, delivering a performance that lingers in the mind long after the curtain has come down. His straightforward earnestness brings necessary gravity to arguments with his father that might drift into the melodramatic in the hands of a lesser actor. “He’s like the weather. I can predict him, but I fundamentally can’t understand him,” Simahk laments in one scene, delivering the emotional weight of the sentiment while saving it from its inherent cliché.
Scene-stealers include Aubin Wise as The Witch, whose solo (aptly titled “The Witch”) drew excited cheers and applause, and whose presence onstage was heartbreakingly scarce. The larger-than-life Lee David Skunes delights as Karl the Giant, making the most of his periphery role with excellent comedic timing and a disarming disposition, not to mention an unforgettable physical presence.
Beneath the magic, Big Fish seeks to cast a gentle light on the often frustrating but ultimately formative bonds that make up family life. It reminds us that parents are people too—something many of us take our entire lives to figure out—and directs us to really get to know the people who raised us. It reminds us to be truly open—when people we love speak to us, are we doing more than hearing? Are we listening? It asks us to take a step back from the fast-paced reality of modern life and suspend our disbelief for just a little while, allowing ourselves to get lost in a bit of old-fashioned storytelling.