Big Fish is the timeless tale of a father and son who don't see eye to eye. First a book, then a Tim Burton movie, and then a Broadway flop, the Big Fish stage musical has been successfully reincarnated in smaller venues, including a production now onstage at Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, New Jersey.
Father Edward Bloom, while a generally decent man, speaks mostly in elaborate tall tales that everyone's heard dozens of times until his son, Will Bloom, doesn't feel like he knows his dad at all. When Edward finds out he's dying just as Will is about to become a father himself, they're forced to a moment of reckoning.
Big Fish history
The tale is one that has taken several forms. It began life as a book, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, written by Daniel Wallace and published in 1998.
Director Tim Burton, seeking to pay tribute to his own late father, adapted Big Fish into a movie in 2003, written by John August and starring Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor as the older and younger versions of Albert, and Billy Crudup as Will. The film was a medium-sized hit that eventually developed a devoted following; I will cop to it being one of my very favorite movies of the last 20 years.
In 2013, Big Fish was adapted once again, into a Broadway musical, with August writing the book along with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. (The musical is officially based on both the book and the film.) The show, despite the presence of Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz in the lead role, closed on Broadway after just three months.
It has, however, had quite an afterlife, and that continues with the Ritz Theater Company’s handsome, winning new production. The film does the thing any production of Big Fish must do: conveying the emotional punch of this story, especially its climax.
The movie was advertised with the tagline "an adventure as big as life itself." The Ritz production, under director Matt Reher, scales things down considerably, although not much is lost in the translation. The minimal set consists of a ladder, a bed, and other elements that are used cleverly for multiple purposes throughout the story.
“And that’s how it happens”
Unlike the film, the Big Fish musical does not split the role of Edward Bloom, instead giving it to a single actor. Chris Monaco, while much slighter of frame than Albert Finney, plays the part here with something of a folksy, Jimmy Stewart lilt, a choice that absolutely works.
Musical highlights include "Time Stops," which adapts one of the better moments of the movie but comes at it from a completely different angle; and "The Procession," which finds a new way to approach the movie's famous finale. And while the presence of a young actor in the cast (Nicky Intrieri) indicated the ending that was coming, it wasn't any less powerful.
In addition to Frankie Rowles, who plays son Will Bloom, the production sports a deep cast, most of whom play more than one role. Most impressive are Rachel Klein, who plays a witch and performs a first-act musical number called "I Know What You Want," and Jared Paxson, who plays Karl the Giant and gives most of his performance on stilts.
A lot of this century’s Broadway flops have since become beloved, frequent productions at the high-school or regional-theater level. Big Fish is a strong enough show to carry on that tradition. Fans of the movie as well as neophytes are advised to head down the White Horse Pike and take in this production.
What, When, Where
Big Fish. Book by John August; music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa; directed by Matt Reher. Through May 19, 2019, at Ritz Theatre Company, 915 White Horse Pike, Haddon Township, NJ. (856) 858-5230 or ritztheatreco.org.
Ritz Theatre Company is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be an ASL/shadow interpreter performance of Big Fish on Saturday, May 11, at 1pm.