Big Fish Review – Heartfelt Musical Loses Something in Lower-Budget Production

(pictured) Edward J. MacLennan as Edward Bloom (front, center) with the ensemble of Jedlicka BIG FISH, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by John August, directed by Dante J. Orfei. Photo by Emily Schwartz

 

The Jedlicka Performing Arts Center concludes its 2013-2014 season with Big Fish, a new musical based on the Daniel Wallace novel and Tim Burton film of the same name. The story centers on Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman whose tall tales about giants, witches, and mermaids are a source of frustration to his son Will, who is determined to learn the truth about his father’s life before he dies.

 

(front right, left to right) Marisa Boynton as Sandra Bloom and Edward J. MacLennan as Edward Bloom with the ensemble Jedlicka Performing Arts Center’s production of BIG FISH, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by John August, directed by Dante J. Orfei. Photo by Emily Schwartz

 

Both the film and the Broadway production of this show received excellent reviews, and indeed it is easy to see how a classic father-son tale riddled with fantastical storytelling and haunted by the specter of death would be touching and appealing to audiences. Unfortunately, the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center fails to deliver. The production felt more high school than professional, with technicians darting offstage as the lights came up, frequent feedback through the microphones distracting from the performance, and spot ops who appeared to be either untrained or sleeping. Then again, any production whose stage manager is listed as “TBD” in the program does not inspire much confidence in its backstage crew.

 

(pictured) The ensemble of Jedlicka Performing Arts Center’s production of BIG FISH, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by John August, directed by Dante J. Orfei. Photo by Emily Schwartz

 

Artistic director Dante J. Orfei both directed and light designed the production, and perhaps he should have left the latter task for someone more qualified. The light design felt lazy, with a carefully selected color palette that failed to compensate for the frequent lack of light on the actors' faces. The overall design did little to signal the transitions from reality to fantasy, with sets remaining realistic across the board, and lead character Edward Bloom wearing the same costume whether he was his teenage self in a flashback or his elderly, dying self in the present. Recycled choices from the Broadway production, such as dancers acting as trees and bonfires, were less dazzling than dull in a smaller-scale setting.

 

(left to right) Jerica Exum as The Witch and the ensemble of Jedlicka Performing Arts Center’s production of BIG FISH, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by John August, directed by Dante J. Orfei. Photo by Emily Schwartz

 

The acting in Big Fish was something of a mixed bag. Five-year-old Landon Barnickel was charming in the roles of both Young Will and Will’s Son. Marisa Boynton’s pretty voice and expressive face made Sandra’s solos more enjoyable than the rest of what was happening onstage, and Taylor Okey, who played Will, seemed to be the cast’s titular “big fish in a small pond,” a talented actor with good energy who belonged on a more carefully managed stage than this one.

 

(pictured) Taylor Okey as Will Bloom (center) with the ensemble of Jedlicka Performing Arts Center’s production of BIG FISH, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by John August, directed by Dante J. Orfei. Photo by Emily Schwartz

 

Edward J. MacLennan, who played Edward Bloom, has performed in several lead roles at the Jedlicka, but if his performance in Big Fish is any indication, perhaps it is time to select another leading actor. His Edward Bloom felt two-dimensional, a self-centered storyteller without the charm that wins over his wife and daughter-in-law or the hidden inner self that his son seeks to find. Indeed, the general stiffness of MacLennan’s performance made it difficult to empathize with his character at all, making trips into his imagination unappealing and arguments with his son one-sided instead of complex. A hero who is so central to the story as Edward Bloom ought to be played by someone with a stronger ability to develop character.

 

(center, left to right) Jonah D. Winston as Karl The Giant, Edward J. MacLennan as Edward Bloom and Aimee Erickson Langenfield as Jenny Hill with the ensemble of Jedlicka Performing Arts Center’s production of BIG FISH, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by John August, directed by Dante J. Orfei. Photo by Emily Schwartz

 

The best part of the show was the last four numbers, which were the first time that the production began to creep towards professional quality and the only time I felt really engaged in the story I was watching. Still, it does not seem a worthy enough payoff for suffering through the first act. I would recommend that those interested in seeing the show stick to watching the film and listening to the Broadway soundtrack, rather than buying a ticket to see it at Jedlicka.

 

Location: Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, 3801 S. Central Ave., Cicero

Dates: Sunday, July 27 – Saturday, August 9, 2014

Curtain Times: Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 3 pm

Tickets: $18. $16 senior discount. Group rates are available. Tickets are available at www.jpactheatre.com or by calling (708) 656-1800.

Parking: Free parking is available.

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