'Big Fish' on a small stage

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By Doug Deuchler

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I felt totally unprepared to see Surging Films & Theatrics' new production of the Broadway musical Big Fish at Madison Street Theater. I had never seen the visually flamboyant Tim Burton 2003 movie, nor had I read the 1998 novel of magical realism by Daniel Webster upon which it was based. At the very least I would not end up tuning in to the Republican convention and Trump's acceptance speech. 

I'm happy to report that Big Fish, which opened in an out-of-town tryout at Chicago's Oriental Theater before heading to Broadway in 2013, is a delightfully engaging, old-fashioned musical that celebrates love and family. 

There's a lot going on at all times. I understand the original production was really dazzling and big, with giant set pieces and elaborate special effects. But this mounting works beautifully. It's a busy, melodic and warm-hearted show. Big Fish is touching and thrilling.

If you've not yet seen a Surging Films & Theatrics production yet, this one is really amazing, taking on a huge, splashy Broadway show and making it work in a storefront theater. This young company is both creative and intrepid.

I do not recall ever seeing another musical in the rather intimate Studio space on the east end of Madison Street Theater. Yet I was impressed by director Billy Surges' energetic, colorful staging. The production values have no doubt been pared down by budget constraints and the physical limitations of the performance area. But Surges' imagination and his large cast of 16 provide a real sense of spectacle. When the ensemble goes into one of their lively dance sequences, you almost feel like you're in the number with them. 

A father-son relationship provides the core of the story. Jake Lange plays a hard-working Alabama traveling salesman named Edward Bloom, a big fish in the small bowl of his Alabama community, has become a legend in his own mind. He's a storyteller who's charming to everyone but his own son. Ed comes home periodically to tell the boy fantastic, epic tales about his past. His son, Will, hates this.

Though Lange is onstage almost non-stop, this indefatigable lead never overpowers his supporting cast. He has a range and emotional openness that wins us over.

The plot is rooted in the southern tradition of spinning tall tales. Edward's exaggerated stories, which border on implausible fantasy, perk up his otherwise rather ordinary life, but as the years march along, they increasingly frustrate his realist son, a just-the-facts journalist who has never fully connected with his now ailing father. The two have a rift over his penchant for inventing and embellishing his own life story. The son wants a dad who is real and present. Portrayed by Seth E. Haman, Will makes us believe his extreme frustration and his love.

There are many wild, fantastic characters, including a traveling circus troupe, a sensuous mermaid and a closeted werewolf. There is also a towering giant named Karl (Billy Surges) and a lovely witch in a swamp (Grace Kinstler). 

Lange is very strong in the exhausting role of Edward, portraying him from high school to mid-life and then old age. There is no attempt at "aging" the parental figures (played by 30-ish actors) with make-up or wardrobe, especially since the musical often moves backward and forward. 

Katie Myers is especially radiant as Ed's sympathetic, devoted wife Sandra. The daffodil-bedazzled love of Ed's life adores this blowhard fantasizer unconditionally. 

The dancers are all talented but Grant Grace is in particular is spirited and fun to watch.

Ed's wife and his pregnant daughter-in-law (played by Aiyanna Wade) both get that there are life lessons embedded in his tall tales.

There's a beautiful tear-jerking finale. All around me, myself included, people were sniffling and wiping their eyes. The opening night performance, so lively, touching, and satisfying, received a standing ovation.

And when I got home, Trump was still talking.

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