By PAM HARBAUGH
At its heart, theater is meant to impact its audience. That impact may come through entertainment lifting you out of any current malaise; or through didactic, eye opening theme. And with its gleaming production of “Big Fish,” the Henegar Center scores on both counts. This musical will linger, nudge you out of complacency and make you examine your own life.
Written by John August with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, “Big Fish” tells the sentimental story of a level-headed young man, Will Bloom, and his romantic minded, traveling salesman father, Edward Bloom — a surname that blossoms, if you will, with metaphor. Having grown up listening to his father’s tall tales and now faced with his father’s impending death, Will scrambles to parse fact from fiction. Who is this man who befriended a giant; who worked a circus for three years just to be near a girl; who learned from a witch not to fear death; and learned from a mermaid what it meant to love. In his investigation, he learns his father’s message and driving force in his own life: to put aside fear and be the hero of your own story.
Director Hank Rion wrings every drop of emotion from this romantic musical, which is based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and first turned into a 2013 movie by Tim Burton. Mr. Lippa’s music, which received a Drama Desk nomination, accelerates the story and its emotion. The soaring, beautiful song “Daffodils” will fill your heart so much your eyes will leak. And it is sung just so wonderfully by Omar Montes (Edward) and Kirstin Williams (Young Sandra). As if that’s not enough, “How It Ends” will destroy any semblance of composure. Not to worry, though, for you’ll leave with upbeat, positive notion that you will indeed vanquish your personal dragons and fill your life with love.
And oh my, what an extraordinary, well-tuned cast.
Mr. Montes brings professional polish and sensational voice to the stage in his leading role of Edward Bloom; but he also knocks the wind out of you with his character’s deep, romantic yearning for Young Sandra and sweet chemistry with his childhood sweetheart, Jenny Hill. And Victor Souffrant makes a splendid Will, imbuing him with anger, frustration, discovery and strength, especially in the number “Stranger.”As Sandra, Shane Frampton lands deep emotion in “I Don’t Need a Roof” as Edward lies in her arms and she sings “Close your eyes, I’m still beside you. No goodbyes needed today.” You will fall in love with Shara Kyles who oozes warmth as Jenny Hill. Mary Carson Wouters is tender and sweet as Josephine, Will’s wife. Dillon Giles as Karl, the Giant, is funny and smart. And in her role of Young Sandra, Ms. Williams, as we have come to expect, utterly charms.
Rob Landers deepens his reputation for excelling at shady characters; this time it’s Amos, the circus manager. Joining Mr. Landers in that category is now Damon Dennin who will surprise you in his role of bully Don Price.
Other standouts include Aidan Holihan as Young Will, David Hill in multiple roles and Angela Harper as the beautiful Mermaid.
Conductor Jordan Evans leads a very good pit orchestra, which is not in the pit this time but backstage. Kaimi Lucker does an excellent job music directing the show. And choreographer Amanda Cheyenne Manis brings wild and wicked touches to the witch scene and lively dance to “Little Lamb from Alabama.”
Oh my, these production values. With his use of projected images rented from the publisher, scenic designer Austin Butler opens up a whole new world to the Henegar. Audiences see fresh, inventive, visual storytelling that brings to center stage change of seasons, a flood, invisible witches, a huge field of daffodils and more. Joshua Huss creates a wonderfully artistic lighting design that moves through song and story. And Vanessa A. Glenn’s costume, hair and makeup design hits the bull’s eye.
With all this “once upon a time” visuals and story elements, one might be inclined to tie this all with the ribbon of “fantasy.” But you can’t get any more “real” then starting out a story with death. Indeed, “Big Fish” uses fantasy to bring us back to that child-like center when all of life was filled with possibilities and optimism. It still is about our real lives and what we do with them. Yes, you’ll be moved to tears; and then, you’ll be moved to see it again.
FYI: Because of my professional relationship with the Henegar, I am not calling this post a “review,” but instead, a “commentary.” Furthermore, this commentary is based on the dress rehearsal, the only performance I’ve seen so far. Also, please be advised that I had the pleasure of directing Omar Montes in “Seminar,” in which he played Douglas. Thank you, Pam Harbaugh.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Big Fish” runs through May 22 at the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $16 to $26. Call 321-723-8698, visit Henegar.org or show your appreciation of the Henegar’s support for Brevard Culture by clicking onto the “Big Fish” ad on the right side of this page.