By Rick Rogers, for The Oklahoman.
Bizarre occurrences in “Big Fish” occasionally make us wonder if this is a journey worth taking. Fortunately, the production by Oklahoma City’s Lyric Theatre convinces us it is worthwhile, with fine performances from the cast and a musical score that charms with its melodic inventiveness.”Big Fish,” the Andrew Lippa musical that fills the third slot of Lyric Theatre’s summer season, tells the story of Edward Bloom, a father who embellishes his ordinary life with fanciful tales about his youthful encounters with a witch, a giant and a mermaid.
Bloom’s far-fetched stories delight everyone except his own son, a storyteller whose journalistic training demands that stories be built on facts. But when Will Bloom learns that his father is ill, he desperately tries to separate myth from reality in those stories.
Edward Bloom takes his cue from a long line of musical theater hucksters, including Harold Hill and P.T. Barnum. But because Bloom’s adventures often border on the bizarre, “Big Fish” occasionally makes us wonder if this is a journey worth taking.
Fortunately, Michael Baron’s direction and Lyn Cramer’s choreography convince us it is worthwhile, with fine performances from the cast and a musical score that charms with its melodic inventiveness. Adam Koch’s magical set designs, one in particular that drapes the stage in hues of blue and green, also help to invite us into Edward Bloom’s curious world.
Eleasha Gamble makes an imposing Witch, who foretells the elder Bloom’s adventurous life along with the specifics of his death. As Bloom is fond of saying, “It’s a surprise ending, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.” Greg White offers a vivid portrayal as Karl, a cave-dwelling giant who gives up his reclusive life thanks to Bloom’s encouragement.
Other cast members whose characters help shape Edward Bloom’s life include Jennifer Teel as a winsome Jenny Hill, Chad Anderson as a circus proprietor with a secret, Rachael Barry as Will’s wife, Josephine, and George Schroeder as a wise-beyond-his-years Young Will.
John August, who adapted his screenplay for this stage version, didn’t create a very compelling character for Edward Bloom’s wife, Sandra, but Emily Skinner manages to make her far more than just a woman attempting to reconcile father and son. Her two ballads, “Two Men in My Life” and “I Don’t Need a Roof,” are powerful and insightful.
Russell McCook does a splendid job of humanizing Will, a character who could easily become irritable and tiresome. He also reveals an impressive voice that is captivating in “Stranger,” a soaring number in which Will vows to be a better father to his own son.
To David Elder falls the responsibility of keeping Edward Bloom believable, a task he handles with remarkable professionalism and theatrical understanding. Not only does he intrigue us with Edward’s fantastic tales, he also allows us to understand that his motive, however misguided, was not to impress his son, but to inspire him.
From the jaunty “Be the Hero,” a number in which Edward conjures up the imposing characters of his youth, to the stirring “Fight the Dragons,” which explains his penchant for a Technicolor life, Elder keeps his performance grounded in reality while allowing the numbers to take flight.
Fantasy briefly gives way to reality when Elder and Skinner deliver the show’s emotional heart, a gorgeous number titled “Time Stops.” As they sing of being able to live forever in that moment, we’re happy to join them thanks to Lippa’s skill as a gifted songwriter.
Theater routinely asks audiences to suspend reality for a couple of hours, something we’re willing to do if the storytelling is sufficiently compelling. And while there are moments in “Big Fish” that seem too implausible, it manages to deliver an emotional payoff. Best of all, it reminds us that friends and family are what make life worth living.