Review: Austin Playhouse’s Big Fish

This charming fish tale is small in scale but huge in heart

(l-r) Braden Tanner as Karl the Giant and Andrew Cannata as Edward Bloom in Austin Playhouse’s Big Fish (Photo by Steve Rogers Photography)

“People want to see things beyond their imagination, bigger than life,” says the circus ringmaster who’s a werewolf to the cave-dwelling giant who becomes a sideshow attraction and entrepreneur in the musical Big Fish.

Yet the best thing about Austin Playhouse’s thoroughly delightful staging of this show is that it has pared down the overextravagance – the sheer bigness – that defined the Broadway production, which premiered to poor reviews in 2013 and closed after just 98 performances. It focuses, instead, on the story’s heart.

The stage production is based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 bestselling novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 film of the same name, with a script by John August (who also wrote the screenplay) and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. It tells the tale of Edward Bloom (Andrew Cannata) who, as a younger man living in Ashton, Alabama, was a big fish in a small pond and eager for adventure elsewhere. Now an old, traveling salesman with cancer, we flashback to those early days as he recalls his incredible encounters with folklore folk, fantastical creatures, and larger-than-life personalities – the same stories told repeatedly to entertain his young son, Will (seventh-grader Liam Minor). As Edward approaches his end, the now grownup Will (Connor Barr) – who is about to be a husband and father himself – tries to come to terms with a father whose life seems to have been built on tall tales and exorbitant fabrications.

Tim Burton’s film embraced the fantastical aspect of the story with a Felliniesque cinematic style and an abundance of metaphor and symbolism. The Broadway production of the work traded allegory for theatricality, turning each of Edward’s adventures into a large-scale, overly produced musical number drenched in magical realism.

The Austin Playhouse production goes smaller by adopting a version of the script that cuts an adventure or two (Edward’s World War II heroics, for example, are now a mere mention and not at all missed) and requires a reduced cast. All but Cannata as Edward – including Brian Coughlin, Nick Hunter, Kia Zhani, Braden Tanner, Stephen Mercantel, Ella Mia Carter, Maria Latiolais, and Amy Minor – double as featured characters and ensemble players. The production also employs a small but superb orchestra – featuring John Holguin (violin), Isabel Tweraser (cello), Malcolm Pinkston (guitar), Devin North (bass), and Mike Koenning (percussion) – under Lyn Koenning’s baton and keyboard. Its size and strings tend to best showcase the tender duets, such as Edward and his future wife Sandra’s (Sarah Zeringue) “Time Stops,” and “This River Between Us,” which explores the difficult relationship between father and son. These happen to be composer Lippa’s best efforts as well.

All the songs are brilliantly performed, for the only thing not small about this Austin Playhouse production is the talent onstage. Cannata, Barr as Will, and Zeringue as Sandra stand out, for they are bona fide triple-threat entertainers whose performances are on par with their Broadway counterparts. Mercantel deserves a shout-out as well, for he is delightful as Amos, the circus ringmaster.

Lara Toner Haddock’s velvet-gloved direction, along with Erin Ryan’s eye-catching choreography, captures every moment of romanticism found in the script. And Haddock’s bare-bones scenic design – complemented by Mark Novick’s lighting, Robert S. Fisher’s sound, and Jessi Rose’s costuming – reinforces the show’s simplicity and keeps the focus where it belongs: on the performers. Designwise, the only missteps are planting the band on the small stage (a constant distraction) and framing the performance space with what seems to be boarded-up exteriors of houses, which are underutilized and make no sense. In terms of storytelling, the ending is a bit muddled without the aforementioned allegory, but will likely leave audiences weeping nonetheless.

Broadway’s affinity for going big most often pays off, as can be seen in this year’s Tony Award-winning New York, New York and revival of Sweeney Todd. But it has ruined shows best served small, like Tuck Everlasting, Bright Star, and Big Fish. This wonderful Austin Playhouse production is proof positive of the error of their ways.

Austin Playhouse’s Big Fish

405 W. 22nd, 512/476-0084
Through July 2
Running time: 2 hrs., 30 min.

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Big Fish, Austin Playhouse, Andrew Cannata, Liam Minor, Connor Barr, Brian Coughlin, Nick Hunter, Kia Zhani, Braden Tanner, Stephen Mercantel, Ella Mia Carter, Maria Latiolais, Amy Minor, Sarah Zeringue

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