Chicago Theatre Review
A Story, A Story
Big Fish – Theatre at the Center
With a book by John August and a score by Andrew Lippa, this musical about telling tales and spinning yarns is being given one of its first professional productions since its 2013 Chicago preBroadway tryout. Based upon the 2003 Tim Burton film and Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel Big Fish: a Novel of Mythic Proportions, it tells about Edward Bloom, a Southern traveling salesman, and his relationship with his son, Will. The musical bounces back and forth in time, depicting Edward’s life and the care he demonstrates for everyone he’s ever known, particularly the love of his life, Sandra. Will, a newly-married young man, who’s anticipating the birth of his own son, first must reconcile with his tall tale-telling father, Edward. All his life the man has filled his son’s head with farfetched, tall tales, overflowing with witches, giants and mermaids, in which Edward was the hero; but now Will needs to know what’s real and who is this man he calls his father.
William Pullinsi has directed this production, based upon the revised Broadway version, with simplicity and loads of heart. He smartly focuses primarily on the relationships of Edward, his family and his friends, rather than filling the stage with overpowering scenery and visual projections. Linda Fortunato’s choreography, while not spectacular, adds motion and color to the show. William Underwood’s musical direction is fine, as is his talented five-piece orchestra. Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s wood-hewn unit set is earthy and serviceable. Brenda Winstead’s costumes and, particularly, Kevin Barthel’s hair and wig design add much to the homespun look of this musical tale.
The best reasons to see this is production include Stef Tovar in the leading role of Edward Bloom. With his honest, heartfelt portrayal of a father who’s lived his life for everyone around him, although he’s embellished it with the stories of the colorful characters who were his friends, this may be Mr. Tovar’s finest role of his impressive career. Not only is Tovar’s love palpable in his acting, his sweet baritone soars in songs like “Be the Hero,” “Fight the Dragons” and the poignant “How It Ends.” He’s matched by Colette Todd’s beautiful characterization of Sandra. Ms. Todd has played everything from Aldonza to Annie Oakley, but this may be her very best. The songs nestle nicely in the warmth of her impressive voice. Her easy, caring portrayal of a woman who’s at once a lover, a wife and a mother is as real as anything audiences will ever see on stage. Ms. Todd’s vocal variety is shown in songs like “Two Men in My Life,” “I Don’t Need a Roof,” “Little Lamb From Alabama” and her duet with Tovar, “Daffodils,” is magical.
The cast features an ensemble of likable, hardworking actor/singer/dancers, such as the talented Bethany Thomas as the Witch, Ann Delaney as the lovely Mermaid, John Stemberg as Karl, the gentle Giant, Norm Boucher as Amos, Nathan Gardner and Callie Johnson as Will and his lovely wife Josephine, and Nate Becker as Young Will. The singers and dancers who complement this production are equally topnotch, as well.
This entertaining, family-friendly production, which focuses on loving relationships and captivating storytelling, would make an excellent Fathers Day outing. Director William Pullinsi spins a heartfelt, musical tale about family, friendships and love. It’s a musical that will touch the heart, speak to the soul and bring a laugh and a tear to everyone. For the performances of Stef Tovar and Colette Todd alone, theatergoers will be rewarded. In Edward Bloom’s talent at spinning stories that both entertain and teach, audiences will leave the theatre a little happier and a lot wiser.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 7-June 7 at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, IN.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.