Review by Spenser Smith of Big Fish: NKU Theatre
Northern Kentucky University opens its current season with the John August/Andrew Lippa musical based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the 2003 film directed by Tim Burton. The show selection seems an interesting choice, since the focal point of the story is a father/son relationship that could stretch believability considering that no cast member is over the age of twenty three. You’ll realize soon enough that if you, like me, thought you could leave your imagination at home it’ll be much to your chagrin.
The story shifts throughout between the past and the present. In the present, an elderly Edward Bloom (Collin Newton) faces his mortality while his son Will (Matthew Nassida) prepares to become a father himself. Will’s wife Josephine (Sara Cox) is pregnant before they get married and Edward has to promise not to tell anyone before they get to announce the news. In the storybook past, we see Edward age on stage, encountering a Witch, a Giant, a Mermaid, and the love of his life, Sandra (Adria Whitfill). The stories intersect as Will begins to discover the secrets of reality that were lost in his father’s imaginative stories. That confusion between what was real and what was fantasy is the cause of Will’s continued frustration when trying to come to terms with his father’s mortality.
Newton and Nassida have great chemistry that is tested throughout the show. Their vocal anger battle in “River Between Us” makes their characters’ impending lives without one another that much more heartbreaking. It delivers, despite the fact that, like the Titanic, we know what’s gonna happen. Some vocal lines are clearly out of Newton’s range, but he navigates those difficulties without further harm. Whitfill, as family matriarch Sandra Bloom, couldn’t have a more perfect motherly persona. And that voice. Good God. Her performance of “I Don’t Need a Roof” is the most perfectly polished and simple moment of the whole show.
Director Jamey Strawn has assembled a strong ensemble cast. He navigates the emotional difference between big, flashy ensemble numbers and small, intimate moments with precise detail. The six-person orchestra, conducted by Damon Stevens, navigates big ensemble numbers and intimate solos with ease. For this production they are on stage, behind the set, but the blend between music and vocals is well-balanced. I’m not sure why they were placed within view, but it wasn’t distracting. Steven’s meticulous vocal direction is on supreme display in “Little Lamb from Alabama.”
I wish the story focused more on the relationship between Will and Josephine and their fact-finding mission to uncover the truth of Edward’s past. The first act is ninety minutes and I think we could spend less time in Edwards stories and not sacrifice any plot details. It does feel like some moments are completely unnecessary. A little research shows that the song list from the Broadway production and the licensed production being produced at NKU are somewhat different. This tells me that the original production team wasn’t quite certain of the structure either.
My critique of the show itself has no bearing on the performance of the cast on stage at NKU. I knew nothing about the show before seeing the Sunday matinee and when I got home, I immediately bought the cast album. The show has its flaws, but when you strip away Edwards imaginative stories and look at his relationship with his family and their personal journey you get a glimpse of the real beauty. This show requires a full emotional arc from its actors and the students at NKU do not disappoint. In fact, tissues are recommended. If you find yourself without one, hopefully you’ve worn a long-sleeved shirt.
Big Fish continues at the Corbett Theatre on the campus of Northern Kentucky University through October 7.
For tickets, call 859-572-5464 or visit theatre.nku.edu.