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Get Hooked by NKU’s “Big Fish”

Review by Doug Iden of Big Fish: NKU Theatre

Northern Kentucky University opened its theatrical season with the poignant musical fantasy Big Fish.  Based upon the novel by Daniel Wallace and the movie directed by Tim Burton, Big Fish reveals the search that a son makes to learn the true essence of his father who has regaled his son with fantastic stories of his past.  The show opens with the son, Will Bloom, played by Matthew Nassida, talking to his father Edward (Collin Newton) about his upcoming marriage and imploring his father not to tell his outlandish stories.  His father ignores his sons pleas and also reveals that Will’s wife-to-be Josephine (Sara Cox) is pregnant.  This scene establishes the conflict between the two which is part intergenerational and part personality conflict between the flamboyant Edward and the reserved and pragmatic Will.  There is a particularly poignant scene where Will (as a young boy portrayed by Charlie Lindeman) wants his father to play baseball with him but Edward eschews the opportunity.  Young Will throws the baseball after the retreating father.  Thus, Will grows up thinking his father doesn’t like him.  

The show is a mix of reality and fantasy and a major theme is trying to sort out the differences.  Will’s stories include encounters with witches and giants, working in the circus and trying to catch a big fish.  The story also follows two timelines: one in the present and one in Edward’s, past illustrated by the recounting of his stories.  As an audience member, you need to pay close attention to the action and the dialogue or you could get lost.

Very quickly, you are drawn into the charisma of the show with a combination of set design (Ronald Shaw) props, costumes (Elizabeth Joos) and an excellent ensemble which variously plays witches, circus performers, mermaids and townspeople. Because of the ongoing theme of water, the front of the stage, normally given to the orchestra, reflects a river with a continually shimmering lighting effect and is the home of the mermaid.  Therefore, the orchestra, led by Music Director Damon Stevens, is housed in the back of the stage.  The primary set is a rustic, half-finished, surrealistic structure. Because of the spare set, the show relies heavily on the use of various props including beds, fishing poles, fish and lots of flowers.

This is a musical and there is a lot of music in it written by Andrew Lippa.  The score is pleasant but not memorable, and is rife with character and plotdriven lyrics.  The voices of the two men (Newton and Nassida) are excellent and one highlight is their verbal battle with the song “The River Between Us” which shows their divide but also continues the water theme.  In the first act, Will sings about his father as a “Stranger” and reprises the song in the second act.  Newton performs well as Edward, jockeying between and older man and the younger version of himself.  He is very believable as the roguish purveyor of myth.  Nassida does a credible job as the uptight Will who then loosens up as he gradually discovers the reality of his father’s life.  

Both women (Cox and Adria Whitfill as Edward’s wife Sandra) are good as actresses and singers.  Some of the highlights include the duets with Sandra and Edward, “Magic in the Man” and “Time Stops”, along with a life-affirming song “I Don’t Need a Roof”, which Sandra sings to her ailing husband.  Another highlight shows Edward wooing Sandra by presenting her with her favorite flowers “Daffodils”.  The ensemble enters at the end of the song carrying umbrellas with daffodils in a very effective closing to act one.  

Other major contributors are Lindeman (an elementary school student) as Young Will and finally as Will’s son, Sam Johnson as Karl the Giant walking on stilts throughout and a very demonstrative Ben Cohen as the Circus Ringmaster Amos Calloway.  

The dancing (choreographed by Tracey Bonner) runs the gamut from very athletic (in the circus scenes) to an effective slow-motion dance.

This is the first time I have seen this musical and was enchanted with this delightful production.  Director Jamey Strawn has seamlessly juxtaposed the “real world” of today with the phantasmagorical world of Edward’s past.

Will Will and Edward reconcile?  Is there any truth in Edward’s wild stories?   Does Edward really love his son?  Will there be a happy ending?  If you want answers to those and other scintillating questions, you need to see the show.  So, grab your rod and reel, leave your cynical pragmatism behind and enjoy the Big Fish playing at NKU’s Corbett Theatre through October 7.  Their next production is Marisol in the Stauss Theatre from October 23 through October 28.