By Ruth Ross
Twenty years ago, Phil Nardone, my editor at Recorder Newspapers, asked me to review a show being presented by 4th Wall Musical Theatre, a new company in residence at the Morristown-Beard School. During that time, I have reviewed almost all their productions, most of them superb and a joy to watch. (Above center: Greg Allen as Edward Bloom toils three years in a circus to win his bride.)
This year, to close out their 2015-2016 season, 4th Wall Theatre (they dropped the "Musical" appellation some years ago, although most of what they produce is musical in nature) presents Big Fish, a 2013 Broadway musical adapted by John August (book) and Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics) from a 2003 film version of a 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace. What I witnessed is a proficient, polished, professional production worthy of this troupe's talents and a reminder of why they are an unsung addition to local theater!
Running for just under four months on Broadway and garnering mixed reviews, Big Fish has been refashioned as a sleeker version or—as termed on the program cover—the 12 Chairs Version. Yes, there are literally 12 chairs of different colors and styles onstage before the play starts: a wheelchair, a rocking chair, a pair of lawn chairs, various stools and even a walker. Removed as the action gets underway, they will be occupied at various times in the multiple locations where Big Fish takes place, announced by a series of placards held high above actors' heads. Along with moveable platforms, they make scene changes quick and efficient.
The tale told by Big Fish involves the need for personal myths and is an ancient one: How can a son ever get to really know his father, especially when that dad, Edward Bloom, is a hardworking traveling salesman who comes home sporadically and tells his son Will fantastic, epic tales about his childhood? The young Will is skeptical of the old man's veracity; as an adult, he begins to doubt his father's sanity and is determined to ferret out the truth behind his parent's stories. The task is to do so before Edward dies and Will prepares to raise his own son and share his childhood stories with his offspring. (Above right: Alexander Wolfe and Allen)
4th Wall Artistic Director Kate Swan has assembled a stellar cast that does justice to this down-home musical play that would be at home on today's Great White Way, what with the productions of Bright Star and Waitress pulling in theatergoers. Performed by a mix of veteran actors and those debuting with the company, the production is charming and tuneful, with great singing and dancing that transport us to Montgomery, Alabama, along with the little town of Ashton, where Edward grew up.
First off, let me say, "Welcome back," to Greg Allen who has been absent from the stage for too long. In the role of Edward, he has to utter the most preposterous stories, but he does so in such a natural, convincing manner that we even come to believe them! He commands (and controls) the stage whenever he's on it, which is most of the time, yet he never overpowers his supporting cast. Best of all, he has the great pipes for Andrew Lippa's music, especially in the rousing opening number, "Be the Hero of Your Story," and the romantic ballad, "Time Stops, sung when he first spies his future wife Sandra at a circus. Equally as touching is his final number, "This Is How It Ends," sung as he approaches the end of his life. (Above L-R: Allen, Rich Maloy, Tom Schopper)
In the role of Will, Christopher Trainor (right, with Laurice Grae-Hauck) conveys the poignant cynical skepticism of the adult child ("Stranger") and the duet with his dad wherein they musically discuss the river between them. And in the small role of Josephine, his bride, Kimberley Mesiti is appropriately supportive of both father and son and helps bring her husband around to accepting his dad as he is. Laurice Grae-Hauck is perfect as Edward's wife and Will's mother Sandra, a strong woman who loves this fantasizer unconditionally, conveyed through two songs, one in which she recognizes the "Magic in the Man" and the other where she confesses that she doesn't need a roof over her head to be happy—just Edward's presence.
Supporting actors are equally fine. Peter Downing is a snappy circus ringmaster Amos; Vanessa Robinson, a beautiful, prescient Witch (left); Ashley Leone, a sinuous, sensuous Mermaid; Rich Maloy, an officious physician; Patrick McLaughlin, an awkward geek; Tom Schopper, a full-of-himself athlete and Edward's nemesis in sports and romance; Jessica Walch, the perky cheerleader who carries a torch for Edward her entire life (below with Allen); Jodi Freeman Maloy, a dejected fisherman and later mayor of the town; and Alexander Wolfe, an exasperated young Will who has to listen to his dad's wild stories. Special mention goes to Danny Egan, who plays the giant Karl with a booming voice and walks smoothly around the stage on stilts that make him over eight feet tall.
Kris Kelleher's set is functional and evocative, as is lighting by Nicholas Marmo and sound by Nicholas Von Hagel. Costumes from On Cue Costumes transport us to the South magical places. Markus Grae-Hauck's musical direction is, once again, splendid.
Despite a rather long first act (an hour and 20 minutes), Big Fish is a riveting tale about a dreamer, a man who "bends the truth with a wrecking ball," a man who is too big for rural Alabama, a "farmer's son who wanted to see the world but never did." Edward tells his son these tales not to deceive the boy but to convey the wonder of the wider world and to emphasize the magic inherent in even the most ordinary life. After all, what could be more ordinary than being a traveling salesman?
With its fine production values and stellar performances, 4th Wall Theatre's production of Big Fish is one you won't want to miss. It is perfect for the entire family, from 9 to 99. But hurry, it only runs this weekend and next. There are two matinee performances on June 5 and 12 at 3 p.m.
Big Fish is performed at the Westminster Art Center, 449 Franklin Street, on the campus of Bloomfield College in Bloomfield through June 12. For information and tickets, call the box office at (973) 566-WALL (9255) or visit www.4thwalltheatre.org online.