Big Fish all about big characters

Rory Turner and Melissa Cunningham in Big Fish at the MacEwan Centre for the Arts. Photo credit: Madison Kerr.

Rory Turner as Edward Bloom and Melissa Cunningham as Sandra Bloom in Big Fish at the MacEwan Centre for the Arts. Photo credit: Madison Kerr.

Big Fish is a story of a father who speaks in metaphors, a son who’s rooted in facts, and the journey they take to reconcile their differences and connect in a level they can both understand before the father passes away.

Put on by Grant MacEwan University’s Theatre Arts program (running until Feb. 14), Big Fish is a musical with a big cast, a big set, and a big story with some tall tales. If you’ve read the book of the same name by Daniel Wallace, or seen the movie, directed by Tim Burton, you’ know the basic gist of the story: at the beginning of the play Will Bloom (the son, played by Theo Jones) is about to get married and asks his father, Edward Bloom (Rory Turner), not to tell any of his stories at the wedding. Edward has been telling Will fantastical stories about his life for as long as Will can remember. Will, being completely logical, even when he was a child, doesn’t understand his father’s larger-than-life stories. Instead of seeing the truth buried in the metaphor of the story, he sees the more fictional elements (giants, mermaids, witches anyone?) as smoke-and-mirrors his father designs to hide his true self from his son.

Through Big Fish we get to experience some of Edward’s more elaborate stories: his years growing up, meeting Will’s mother, working at the circus, being taught to swim by a mermaid, being shown the way he would die by a witch, and befriending a giant, to name but a few. While Melissa Cuerrier’s flexible, mystical set and Josee Chartrand’s whimsical costumes do a good job of transporting us to Edward’s world, we still experience the stories through William’s skeptical eyes, and the tension between skepticism and imagination forms the main conflict of the show.

Edward Bloom, played by Rory Turner, is on stage for nearly the entire show – transforming seamlessly between his younger and older self. In particular, I thought he did a particularly good job as the older, sickly man with his frail physical demeanor being very believable. I also liked the chemistry between Rory and Melissa Cunningham, who played Edward Bloom’s more down-to-earth wife. Big Fish also placed a number of dance and choreography demands on Melissa, from waltzing to a choreographed group number, which she seemingly met with ease.

Big Fish requires a big cast, all of whom were enthusiastic and many who played multiple roles throughout the evening. Overall, the ensemble worked well together – I didn’t notice any missteps in choreography, nor jostling on the crowded stage. The biggest criticism I have of Big Fish is that overall, the cast could have used more vocal training. One exception being Nasra Adem, who played the witch and had one of my favourite performances of the evening, with the song “I Know What You Want”.  The recording from the Broadway cast recording is below, but Nasra added more vocal depth and range to the song than is in the recording, and seemed to have a lot of fun with the mystical, self-assured character that is The Witch.

I also really liked Josh Thayer’s take on Karl the Giant. The character – who is initially presented as a frightful, violent, and less-than-human monster – is revealed to be very well-read and a little shy, and is intrinsically a funny character. Josh’s comedic timing, and seemingly clunky (yet controlled) handling of the stilts, and ability to flawlessly deliver highly intelligent, complicated lines made Karl the Giant another favourite character in the show.

With a run-time of a fast-moving 2.5 hours, Big Fish lets us get caught up in the whimsy that is Edward Bloom’s imagination. While some of the musical numbers left something to be desired in terms of pitch and tonal quality, it’s still a good chance to let your imagination roam a little and meet the students of MacEwan University’s Theatre Arts program.

Big Fish runs at the John L. Haar Theatre at MacEwan University’s Centre for the Arts and Communications (10045 – 155 street) until February 14. Tickets are $15 – $20 from Tix on the Square.

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