Artisan Center Theater
Director – Eve Roberts
Choreographer – Amy Jones
Musical Director – Richard Gwozdz
Stage Manager – Paula Rae Brown
Set/Scenic Designer – Wendy Searcy
Lighting Designer – Nate Davis
Sound Designers – Rick Blair, Richard Gwozdz
Properties Designer - Kris Hampton
Costume Designer – Nita Cadenhead
Edward Bloom – Reid Horton
Sandra Bloom – Suzi Lee
Will Bloom – Jacob Taylor
Young Will – Josh Hampton
Josephine Bloom – Alex Eddins
Jenny Hill – Delaney Brown
The Witch – Mary Ridenour
Amos Calloway – Kirk Corley
Karl the Giant – Kristopher Hampton
Don Price/Red Fang/ Fisherman – Kraytoino Stevenson
Zacky Price – Collin Tooley
Dr. Bennett/Mayor/Gen. Patterson – Mark Scott
Woman 1/Mermaid/Alabama Lamb – Amy Jones
Woman 2/Alabama Lamb – Hessa Benfield
Woman 3 – Lauren Sphar
Woman 4 – Michelle Roberts
Man 1 – Ian Nance
Man 2 – Josh Crow
Reviewed Performance 3/5/2016
Reviewed by Mark-Brian Sonna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
“Big Fish” is a musical based on the film by the same name. Both the film and the musical share some key plot points but the tone is completely different. The story is about the Bloom family, specifically Edward Bloom and the contentious relationship with his son Will. The son has difficulties with his father because Edward is prone to exaggeration and creates stories full of fancy and improbability about his past. As the father becomes terminally ill, Will attempts to reconcile and to get to better know his father without much success for his father clings to the tall tales about his life. The film version was directed by Tim Burton, and his unique style imbues the film. The film is suffused with darkness whereas the musical is a lighthearted and feels like a benign fairytale. Comparing the two is impossible because it would be like comparing Homer’s The Odyssey and Voltaire’s Candide. While both involve a journey the reader, or in this case of “Big Fish” the audience, is left with two different experiences.
Though I am a big fan of Tim Burton’s work and loved the film, I prefer the musical. Why? The music. The lyrics that accompany the hummable melodies are nuanced, heartfelt, and communicate more within a few minutes than an entire scene in the film.
Artisan Center Theater has done a stellar job of mounting this production. The set design by Wendy Searcy captures the whimsical and gothic locations. Her circus tent, swamp, giant’s cave, and the small house are expertly executed for they capture the whimsical, gothic, cartoonish, and idealized versions of each location respectively. The sets don’t just serve as locations but the idealized visions of Edward Bloom. The same goes for the costuming of Nita Cadenhead. The mermaid, witch, circus master, and the giant are instantly recognizable by their appropriately clichéd costumes. The lighting by Nate Davis is both fancy and realistic depending on whether we are seeing a scene from Edward’s imagination or when he inhabits the real world. The myriad of props used in the show designed by Kris Hampton capture the duality beautifully: be it magical orbs held in the witches’ hands, or a real stethoscope worn by a doctor.
This presentation requires the use of musical tracks. I have always stated that I loathe musicals where the performers have to sing along with pre-recorded tracks. I will gladly eat my own words: Musical Director Richard Gwozdz used the tracks expertly along with sound designer Rick Blair. This show contains long passages of music that underscore the book scenes. The volume was lowered to the correct level and once a song began the volume increased for the musical numbers. Overall, vocally, the cast was strong, and even the few singers that didn’t have the strongest voices delivered their musical numbers with panache. The value of having an expert musical director like Gwozdz is he can take an average singer and make them sound good.
Amy Jones choreographed the many musical numbers with mastery. Her choreography never surpassed the level of the performers so that all dance sequences were executed with precision and ease. Susan Stroman directed and choreographed the original version of the show on Broadway, and her style is very well known. Jones smartly captured some of Stroman’s style, which is to be expected, but she was able to still imprint her own vision on the musical so it never felt derivative. The result is this is one of the best choreographed shows I’ve seen in the local DFW theatre scene in quite some time.
There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. What makes this musical difficult is that other than the son Will Bloom, every performer must play either different ages of their character, or play various characters. For example: Suzi Lee plays Sandra Bloom. She ages from being a teenager, to a young wife, to eventually a grandmother. Ms. Lee transformed herself subtly leaving no doubt which age she was playing without ever falling into a stereotype or abandoning her character. Mark Scott played his three roles of Dr. Bennett, a Mayor, and General Patterson convincingly. Amy Jones as Woman 1, the Mermaid, and one of the members of the singing trio Alabama Lambs transformed herself so completely that I had to check the program to make sure that indeed it was the same performer. Even the young Josh Hampton who plays the young Will Bloom and later Will Bloom’s young son captured the two different identities: the first was staid, the other full of energy.
Jacob Tyler played Will Bloom and his is the only character that doesn’t have to age as much. At the beginning of the play is engaged, he then marries, and by the end becomes a father. He delivered a very commendable performance. He captured the gravitas of the role, and his dismay in being unable to connect with his father was palpable. He is also a very good singer. The only quibble I had is that Mr. Tyler looked like he was still in his teens. So it required quite a deal of suspension of disbelief that he was someone in his 20’s.
Alex Eddins plays Will’s wife Josephine gracefully. Josephine is entranced by Edward’s storytelling and tries to negotiate a compromise between the father and son. The character isn’t given that many lines though she is a frequent presence on the stage. Ms. Eddins’ ability to convey subtext both in her spoken lines and by just a look or reaction fleshed out the character.
Some of the other outstanding characters played with mastery in the show are the witch, played with a glorious singing voice by Mary Ridenour, Karl the Giant played with comedic drollness and on stilts by Kristopher Hampton, and the circus ring master Amos was played with a deliciousness manipulative quality by Kirk Corley.
The main character is Edward Bloom and it is a monster of a role. Whoever performs it must be able to not just act, but sing and dance. Reid Horton is given this daunting task and he mostly succeeds. There is no doubt the man can sing and he dances quite well. He is also a very capable actor. His line delivery was spot on and he has a zest for comic timing. He is definitely charismatic, and this carries the show. The one flaw in his performance is that of authenticity. The character is very much a show man, and Horton nails that aspect. But as the show progresses the audience needs to understand fully the psychological underpinnings of his character: why does a man, who in essence led an ordinary life, feel a need to create fables about his past? The shows lyrics and book tells us, but we never feel it from him. And because of it the audience never fully connects with the character. We like him but never grow to love him, so when he reaches the end of his life we feel a twinge of sadness, but we don’t feel a great loss. Does this undo the show? Not at all. The show is still very successful, and his performance is very good. He is definitely a show man because he kept the audience thoroughly entertained and made the musical fly by for what could have been a lengthy 2 hours and 40 minutes. That said, he missed the opportunity to make the role transcendental.
Besides the outstanding production values and the vast amount of talent on stage kudos must be given to the director Eve Roberts. Her directing was inspired. Her stage pictures were idyllic. She paced the show with delicacy, and she drew out from what is a very young cast some outstanding performances. It is clear she had a strong vision and it was executed.
Artisan Center Theater’s version of “Big Fish” is definitely a musical that is memorable. It is not an easy musical to produce because of its elaborate production requirements and it requires a large cast of triple threats. This show delivers and serves as proof that a community theatre can produce a show on a par with professional theatre.
Artisan Center Theater, 444 E. Pipeline Rd, Hurst, TX 76053
Now through April 9th, 2016
Performances on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM, and Saturdays at 3:00 PM. For information and tickets visit www.artisanct.com or call 817-284-1200.