This may sound hard to believe, but the stage musical adaptation of “Big Fish” – originally a 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace before Tim Burton directed the 2003 film version – will soon play on Encore Theatre’s blackbox stage.
Why would that be so hard to fathom? Because the short-lived, 2013 Broadway premiere production (book by John August, music and lyrics by ’87 U-M grad Andrew Lippa) epitomized an over-the-top, splashy, all-the-bells-and-whistles approach to musical theater that could never be duplicated in an intimate space.
So instead, Encore is presenting a scaled-down, small cast version of the show (called the “twelve chairs” edition) that shifts focus from spectacle to story.
Namely, the strained relationship between Will Bloom, whose first child will soon be born, and his father, Edward Bloom, a terminally ill man who’s always been prone to telling fantastical stories. As Will prepares to become a dad, he longs to know whom his dying father, practically a stranger, really is, and the truth of his past life.
“There’s something everybody can relate to in this, because everyone’s had a moment when they felt like they didn’t understand what their parent was doing, and got frustrated, or the same kind of situation with not understanding where your kid is coming from, or what they’re thinking,” said Billy Eric Robinson, who plays Will. “The show is about this father and son who just speak two different languages. … There’s a conflict between these two characters, but there’s no bad guy.”
Will’s mother, Sandra, of course, has spent a lifetime as “the referee between the two,” said Emmi Bills, who plays the role. “Her main function involves reminding both of them that the other guy is a living, breathing person, and that they don’t have to understand each other to love each other.”
Sandra, of course, having shared her life with Edward, knows more about the truth of his past. “But she views his stories as magical,” said Bills. “ … Whether they’re true or not doesn’t matter to her. She understands they’re based on some truth. … And she thinks they’re charming. They’re part of why she loves him.”
But why is Edward Bloom so compelled to embellish in highly fanciful ways?
“There’s a joy in escapism, because real life is hard,” said David Moan, who plays Edward. “Everyone faces major challenges, and a lot of times, people get bogged down in how hard life can be. It’s easy to lose sight of the good things, like a sense of wonder, and laughter, and serendipity. So what Edward does is hold a magnifying glass to things that, through him, become these fantastical moments, and that makes people stop and remember, ‘Oh, yeah, there is joy in this.’ … So he tells his stories to make the people around him happy.”
Yet there’s a cost to this particular approach to life. “Bloom loves everything, … but we see the repercussions of that with his son and his wife,” said Moan. “How, when he does try to make deep connections, he struggles, because he tends to function on this superficial level.”
Because Edward spends a good deal of time in his (fictional) past in “Big Fish,” Moan and his cast-mates must often, during the course of a scene, make significant jumps in terms of the ages and perspectives of their characters.
“The way the story is built, they hop around in time constantly,” said director Thalia Schramm. “ … They have to keep changing their voice, and the way they carry themselves, and the way they walk.”
But Schramm has been wowed by her cast’s abilities in rehearsals, including their work on Lippa’s score – the element of the show that most won her over when she saw the original Broadway production.
“I super-love the score,” said Schramm. “ … There are a few recurring themes, … where you don’t even realize you’re hearing one of them again and again, and it’s just this beautiful way to weave the whole score together.”
Why didn’t the show hit the mark, critically or commercially, on the Great White Way? Schramm has some ideas.
“The Broadway production was full of these unnecessarily huge production numbers,” said Schramm. “The version we’re doing is way more focused on the father-son relationship.”
“Part of what happened with the Broadway production is that the movie version was all about spectacle, and they were trying to meet that expectation on stage, whereas I think the way to go is to bring it down to human relationships,” said Robinson.
But given the complexity of those relationships in “Big Fish,” you might want to bring along a tissue or two.
“It’s such a balanced show,” said Moan. “It shows how these really beautiful, fantastic moments bring so much joy to people. It just puts a smile on your face. But you also can’t think about the story without a twinge of sadness, either, because in the sad, heartbreaking moments, where the characters are facing the hardest stuff of life, it’s all the more powerful because you know where they’ve been.”
“Big Fish” plays at Dexter’s Encore Theatre from April 26-May 20. For showtimes and ticket information, visit https://www.theencoretheatre.org/ or call 734-268-6200.