Some stage musicals are lighter than air, soothing as water, sounding good and feeling delightful as long as they last, then evaporating on the wind, fading fast into the folds of our cerebral cortex, almost immediately after the show is over.
Big Fish, the new production offered by Gene Abravaya and Spreckels Theater Company, is that kind of show. Light and fluffy, with pleasant but strikingly unmemorable songs, tinged with a touch of serious human drama, but mostly just a good old-fashioned American musical.
But, as written by John August, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, this adaptation of the Daniel Wallace novel and the Tim Burton movie it inspired is so sweet-natured and so crammed with positivity and eye-popping pleasures, one can’t help but walk away feeling good.
The stage version deviates wildly from the movie, which deviated wildly from the book.
In many ways, the stage play is even more grounded and clear than the others, which tended to obfuscate the line between reality and fantasy. In the version now playing at Spreckels, playwright John August only occasionally muddies the line between what’s really happening and what is only happening in one of the many tall tales of master storyteller Edward Bloom.
A travelling salesman with a knack for telling outrageous stories in which he’s always the hero, Bloom is played by Darryl Strohl-DeHerrera, who joyously protrays a variety of ages from teenage to old age. Bloom has spent his life gleefully fabricating encounters with mermaids and giants, werewolves and witches, but why?
And why are there parts of his life he seems unwilling to even make up a story about?
That what Edward’s adult son Will decides to find out. A recently married investigative reporter Will has always resented his father’s tendency to make things up. When Edward is diagnosed with a terminal illness, Will sets out to discover the real Edward Bloom, one way or another.
Will’s mother Sandra—played nicely by Heather Buck, also portraying numerous ages — is clearly the love of Edward Bloom’s life, and in his stories, she’s the primary “plot motivation” for his various adventures and exploits, from his colorful love-at-first-sight encounter under a circus big top, to his unorthodox method of travelling to see her once he finds out who his heartthrob actually is.
The script by John August drops some of the book and movies more outrageous images, so don’t go in expecting Siamese twins or magical glass eyeballs. The mysterious town of Specter, where no one where’s shoes and everyone seems to be under a magical spell? That’s gone too, which means August has to do a little fancy storytelling footwork to make the remaining pieces fit together. The cast is energetic and clearly having a great time playing so many colorful characters in gloriously offbeat costumes by Pam Enz. The songs by Andrew Lipa feature genuinely clever lyrics, though somewhat hampered by repetitive, oddly monotone and melody-restricted music. Most of the time, it’s all singing and no song.
Abravaya’s staging makes ingenious use of Spreckel’s acclaimed projection system, which provides much of the ever-shifting scenery, along with a number of clever visual effects, including a man being shot from a cannon.
Of course, the best part of a story is the ending, and ultimately, this ambitious and mostly satisfying production delivers a climax that is both impactful and surprising. It might even inspire you to call up your own parents or children, to tell them you love them—and perhaps to share a story or two.
‘Big Fish’ runs through August 28 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, rpcity.org.