Thursday, November 27, 2014

Review of Musical Theatre West’s Big Fish at the Carpenter Center


As part of their 62nd season, Musical Theatre West included Big Fish -- a show I had never heard of. This stage musical is based on a 2003 movie that is based on a 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace. I was also unaware of the movie, which is surprising as Tim Burton directed it, Danny Elfman wrote the music, and it starred Ewan McGregor (one of my favorite actors). The musical (with new music) ran on Broadway for three months in 2013, and then went dark. Though it is not my favorite musical that I have seen in recent years, none of it was MTW’s fault.

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/Producer Paul Garman. Their big shows are staged at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking.

Big Fish is a classic story of son that does not understand his father, but eventually comes to appreciate what their relationship is all about as his father passes on and he begins to raise his own son. It is set in the south and follows the life and adventures of the father, Edward Bloom (Jeff Skowron), as seen through his own fanciful thoughts. The book for this show was written by John August, the same fellow that did the screenplay for the film adaptation. The original music and lyrics came from Andrew Lippa, who did a marvelous job with The Addams Family Broadway show.

Paul Garman was the champion for getting this show to Musical Theatre West, as he fell in love with it when he saw it during the musical’s tune-up in Chicago prior to its Broadway debut. MTW is the first company to perform Big Fish off Broadway, and they took the gamble of buying the original sets and costumes. This means that there is nothing to complain about there, as Julian Crouch’s scenic design and William Ivey Long’s costumes are fabulous.

The cast were up to the standards of these elements too, as Skowron did a bang-up job of portraying the elder Bloom though all stages of the character’s life – it must have been an exhausting role to play. Rebecca Johnson played his wife, Sandra, Andrew Huber was his son, Will, and Kristina Miller took the role of Will’s wife, Josephine. The leads were all strong, and well placed for their roles. The backing cast was also very good with standout performances by Molly Garner as the witch, Timothy Hughes as Karl the giant, and Gabriel Kalomas as Amos. The ensemble did a fine job as they filled in during the multiple changes in scenery.

The pit orchestra, under the direction of Matthew Smedal, was completely hidden by the stage elements, so I had no idea who was down there, but they certainly brought the show to life. Lippa’s score was pleasant to listen to, but there were not any tunes that got stuck in my head, let alone that I can remember a few weeks later. This is not a terribly good thing.

Technically, everything went well during the show, with clear sound from Brian Hsieh, and exciting lighting effects from Phil Monat. Larry Carpenter’s direction was logical with no awkwardness to the action on stage, which was helped along by the fun choreography from Peggy Hickey.

With all of this good stuff going on, it became pretty obvious that the show itself is pretty weak. As I said, the music is not memorable, but the story is fairly tired too. The age-old story of family love and conflict was not reworked in any earth-shattering manner, and the progression was predictable with no surprises. I can see why the show did not last very long on Broadway.

One last gripe before I wrap this up and that is that all of the performers deserve recognition in the program, not just the folks on stage. The musicians received no credit, and that is just wrong. It does not take up that much space in the program, and what if their parents come to see the show?

Big Fish closed earlier this month, but do not worry, there are still plenty of great musicals to see at the Carpenter Center before next summer! Musical Theatre West’s 2014-2015 season has three shows left: South Pacific, Les Miserables and Singin’ in the Rain. These are all solid shows and MTW always delivers the goods, so they are must-sees. It is not to late to load up on tickets for them, so check out their website at for details about tickets and packages.


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