By presenting the Australasian premiere of Big Fish, Warrnambool youth theatre group Holiday Actors takes on a musical that is a departure from their usual annual productions of well-known, high-grossing musicals. But oh boy have they done a commendable job!
Big Fish, based on the Tim Burton film of the same name, follows the life of Edward Bloom, who dreams fantastical stories about his own life to his son Will, who is about to have a son of his own. Stories of witches, giants, werewolves and mermaids ensure a great, family-friendly tale to appeal to all ages.
Although not enamoured by the musical version itself, Holiday Actors put on nothing short of a spectacle. Direction by Tyler Hess and assisted by Greta Punch is masterful. The wealth of experience in past direction and theatre between the two is evident in the blocking and staging of this production. Each scene has been carefully constructed and blocked, allowing at times for the 48-strong cast to fit on the stage without it ever appearing over-crowded. This was specifically apparent in the closing scene where the whole cast gathers on the stage with a good amount of space seemingly still available on the stage. The cast expertly handled this direction as well, with not one cast member ever looking out of place or uncomfortable in a scene.
The true highlights of this production, however, are the sets and costumes; a further credit to the complex vision Hess and Punch had for this show. Designed by Hess and Lyle Russell, the sets created for Big Fish would not look out of place in a professional touring production (kudos also to all those involved in the construction and painting of these sets – there are too many to individually mention) and they suited each scene perfectly, with highlights being the graveyard and university scenes complemented by exquisite backdrops and technologically advanced projections. Sets were further complemented by a myriad of costumes (around 320!) and wigs, designed and sourced by Hess, Russell and Janet Punch. These two elements made the show an extremely well-coordinated burst of colour, sequins and glitter, which, as I previously mentioned, gave the show a professional air. For example, stand-out costumes included one that mirrored the Statue of Liberty and the Maleficent-style bat costumes in the graveyard scene. However, quite often the young cast struggled with the amount of costumes changes, which at times overshadowed their performances, with many dropping character and rushing off the stage to execute these changes, thus detracting from the overall emotion of the scenes. I can imagine, though, that this kink will be ironed out as the season progresses.
For the complexity of the sets, most transitions were made very well and it was often the cast themselves moving different set pieces on and off the stage. Despite this, many transitions made by cast members were made sans purpose and out of character which affected the flow of the musical as many changes had to be under lights. Overall though, this was hardly a major issue and may become more efficient as the cast gets used to the changes.
Lighting, designed again by Hess, along with Xavier Dannock and assistant director Greta Punch, was also extremely effective, with many different effects employed to complement each scene and set appropriately. Sound, however, was often an issue. Microphones were not turned on when lead roles were delivering lines and the chorus could do with some more sound assistance on the big chorus numbers, as I struggled to hear them at pivotal moments even though I was seated fairly close to the stage. The modulation effects used on the character Karl the Giant (Lyndon Hurley), were, however, a real treat.
Even though there were technical issues with sound, vocals on the whole were very strong, especially in ‘Out There on the Road’ and opening number, ‘Be the Hero’, with the cast masterfully vocally directed by the experienced stalwarts, Maja Pearson and Aradie Walters. Pearson and Walters have clearly guided the young cast extremely well with some beautifully moving harmonies delivered by the cast in some of the more emotional songs. Individually though, it would be remiss of me not to mention Maddie Jackway, who played the lead female role, Sandra Bloom as she takes the cake with her vocal prowess. ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, sung by Jackway in Act II is hauntingly beautiful and was the musical standout of the show. Of course, Jackway and the rest of the cast are aided well by the orchestra, led by Sonia Gellert, who has musically directed the many musicians to deliver a strong, whole and mostly coordinated sound, getting the audience into the mood to enjoy the show.
Another strength of this production is the choreography, created and handled by the very capable Emily Trigg. A variety of genres are incorporated into the affair including jazz, ballet, contemporary and pointe; yet all are suitable and executed well by the young cast. Trigg has clearly put a lot of thought into the choreography of this production and more capable dancers (standouts Nicky McKenzie, Lachlan Trigg, Tobin Varley and Lauren Wrigley as the Mermaid) are featured appropriately. However, it would have been nice for the whole cast to be included in more of the dance numbers as the opening scene with the whole cast dancing in unison is breathtaking!
Overall, performances by the cast members of the show are very commendable. As the lead role Edward Bloom, Ryan Quinn is strong. He has a good voice and suits the role well. However, I feel that he could have put more energy and pizzazz into his performance, because at times it appeared he lacked focus and expression, which affected his comic timing. This may have just been fatigue due to an intensive rehearsal schedule and he may be better rested for future performances. His movement and dance ability were also of high quality, though sometimes a tad erratic. There were also very solid performances from Jackway (Sandra Bloom), Toby McKenzie (Will Bloom), Annabel Ziegeler (Josephine Bloom) and Lyndon Hurley (Karl the Giant) both vocally and acting-wise. However, it was the minor, cameo roles that really shone in this production. Phoebe Sloane as the Mayor was captivating and hilarious, Rebecca Fullerton, whose character Jenny Hill has a tragic side-story was a standout in her opening scene, and various one-liners from other cast members including Will Bonney and Angela Kenna demonstrated their impeccable comic timing and really stole the show.
Holiday Actors have put on a brilliant production and should be extremely proud of their efforts in bringing the Australasian premiere of Big Fish to life. Each member of this local theatre company should be happy to have put on one of the troupe’s best shows in recent years.
I highly recommend getting down to Warrnambool to the Lighthouse Theatre to marvel in this production so buy tickets online at the Lighthouse Theatre website as it only runs until Saturday the 16th of January.