Note: On opening night, lead actor Phillip Lowe was unable to perform the sung parts of his role due to a viral infection. So, while Lowe appeared on stage to perform his dialogue, director Tyran Parke sang the songs normally performed by Lowe from a seat in the front row of the audience.
Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace later turned into a film by Tim Burton, Big Fish was first seen in its musical theatre guise in Chicago in 2013 under the direction of five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman. When it transferred to Broadway later that year, the production received mixed reviews. Its performance at the box office was also far from stellar, closing after only 98 performances post-previews.
Since its Broadway production, Big Fish’s stage adaptation has been re-worked for performance in an intimate setting by a cast of 12. It’s aptly called the 12 Chairs Version, and it’s this iteration of Big Fish that’s currently playing at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre under the direction of highly accomplished Australian singer, actor, director and recording artist Tyran Parke. It’s a far cry from the expansive, lavish US$14m production audiences witnessed on the Great White Way.
With a book by American screenwriter and director John August (who also wrote the film’s screenplay) and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family), Big Fish tells the story of Edward Bloom (Phillip Lowe), a travelling salesman with the most vivid of imaginations from the town of Ashton, Alabama. Edward has a penchant for regaling those around him with epic stories, including his wife Sandra (Katrina Retallick) and son Will (Adam Rennie). But Will is now an adult and will soon have a child of his own with wife Josephine (Alessandra Merlo), and he’s resolved to find out how much truth lies in his father’s stories.
Over the course of the evening, we’re treated to a number of these tall tales – a story of a terrifying witch who can see the future and reveals to Edward how he will ultimately die, a narrative about a giant living in a cave near Ashton, who Edward convinces to accompany him on an adventure outside of the town, and a tale of how Edward persuaded Sandra to marry him with the promise of a life full of daffodils. This is a story that examines the nature and importance of familial relationships, and asks whether it’s such a bad thing for one to reflect on their own life through a fantastical lens. Does it really do harm to blur fiction and reality to such an extent?
Parke has crafted a production that is immensely entertaining, genuinely moving and recreates the whimsical world that Wallace envisioned with such wonderful clarity. By taking a piece originally translated for the stage on such a grandiose scale and bringing it to life within the confines of the intimate Hayes Theatre space, Parke has maximised the responsibility of his cast members for ensuring their performance of August’s text and Lippa’s lyrics is bold enough to convey the sense of larger-than-lifeness that characterises the world Wallace’s characters inhabit. Of course, Anna Gardiner’s and Martelle Hunt’s production design still plays a crucial role (and the pair has done great work here), but the fact is that Big Fish cannot work on a small scale without actors ready and willing to go ‘big’ with their performances.
Parke has succeeded in assembling a cast of actors absolutely up to the task. Even absent a singing voice on opening night, Lowe is remarkable as Edward. He wears a southern accent like a glove, is hugely charismatic and has no trouble making us believe he has a magnetism that endears him to virtually all who he encounters. While the tales he tells may not be entirely factual, there’s nothing fake or insincere in Lowe’s Edward, rather he’s genuinely kind-hearted and someone who patently cares deeply for those around him. His is an excellent performance.
As his devoted wife Sandra, Retallick reminds us why we must see her in musical theatre more often. She’s warm and doting but no wallflower, and her delightful soprano makes each one of her sung moments a joy. Her performance of ‘I don’t need a roof’, a poignant professing of her love for Edward, is a particular highlight. Retallick is appropriately innocent and youthful in her portrayal of Sandra in her younger years, and equally convincing in a motherly role as the timeline moves decades forward.
Rennie is in fine voice playing Edward’s earnest and pragmatic son, Will. His performance of ‘Strangers’, an emotional declaration of the distance he feels from his father, gives Rennie the opportunity to showcase his powerful tenor. It’s a standout highlight of the first act. As well as his obvious vocal strength, Rennie shows such heart through song. That emotion never feels over-the-top or forced, rather a measured response to a situation or consistent with what the song lyrics require.
As Jenny Hill, Edward’s high school sweetheart, Kirby Burgess is also impressive. There is such a profound pathos that defines her characterisation and it’s perfect for the role. Alessandra Merlo delivers as Will’s innately likeable partner Josephine, Seth Drury injects good humour into his portrayal of the friendly giant, Karl, and Brittanie Shipway brings it with a gutsy, note-perfect performance of ‘The Witch’, making her mark in this production. And as Don Price, the uncoordinated bully who happens to be Edward’s high school arch nemesis, Aaron Tsindos creates some of the piece’s best comedic moments.
Lippa’s score (instantly more memorable than his work on The Addams Family) is bought to life in this production by an orchestra of six – far fewer players than the sizeable orchestras that performed the score nightly for New York and Chicago audiences. But under the direction of Luke Byrne, these musicians triumph in creating a big sound in the small space, achieving a rich reproduction of the score.
All in all, Parke and his team have worked hard to ensure that the professional premiere of Big Fish in Australia is memorable for all the right reasons. Perhaps, more than anything, it’s a reminder of the importance of our family relationships and making the most of the time we have. This is a fine production, and it’s always exciting to have the opportunity to see a work at The Hayes that hasn’t previously appeared on professional stages in Australia.
BIG FISH – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Dates: Playing now until Sunday 14 May 2017
Times: Tuesday – Saturday 7.30pm | Saturday 2pm | Sunday 3pm
Prices: $59.00 Concession | $65 Full price
Bookings: 8065 7337 or hayestheatre.com.au