The Selma Arts Center has big ambitions with the musical “Big Fish,” and not all of them are realized. There’s plenty of heart and enthusiasm to be found in this sweet and sentimental show, along with some nicely staged ensemble numbers and several touching performances. And it’s nice to see a company tackle a new and challenging Broadway musical.
But the production doesn’t live up to its potential.
Not all shows can come together with the finesse of the company’s summer hit “Heathers,” which soared thanks to a stellar cast, inspired direction, deft design, strong vocals and a sizzling theatrical chemistry among its ensemble. That show, one of the best of the year, vaulted the Selma company into the upper tier of central San Joaquin Valley regional theater.
“Big Fish,” on the other hand, feels much more like an average community theater production with some nice strengths but also considerable weaknesses.
Among the strengths, co-directors Nicolette C. Andersen and Dominic Grijalva figure out clever ways to stage the fantastical elements of John August’s book and Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics. Based on the well-known novel by Daniel Wallace (and the 2003 film on which it’s based), much of the charm of the musical (which opened and closed on Broadway in 2013) has to do with the tall tales told by its leading character.
Edward Bloom (played by Tyler Jarrett) tells fanciful stories the way the rest of us breathe. It’s that natural to him. His real knack comes in incorporating wild characters – witches, giants and bizarre circus performers – into his own life story. His listeners are never quite sure where reality ends and fiction begins.
Whether they are embellishments with a kernel of truth or flat-out lies, however, his father’s stories have always grated on son Will (played as an adult by Marcus Cardenas), even from childhood. Will feels he’s never gotten to know his true father, and he’s been in something of a snit about it ever since.
Grijalva designed the projections for the production, and they add a lot to a show with a dizzying number of settings, from a dark and scary forest to a quaint American town. (But I was disappointed we don’t get more of a splash with the famed daffodil tableau.) A big circus scene staged with live performers shows a nice creative spark, including some gymnastics tricks.
There’s also a nice back and forth in terms of chronology as scenes shift from Young Will (an impressive Landon Davis, who alternates the role with Marcus Valdez) remembering his father to the present day, when a wedding, pregnancy and illness further complicate an already strained father-son dynamic.
Jarrett has an amiable stage presence and gives an earnest performance, and I enjoyed seeing his character’s tender relationship with his wife, Sandra (an appealing Lesley Ogle), develop. But the vocals are a weak spot in the show overall. Jarrett and Cardenas both struggle at times in terms of tone, pitch and range with Lippa’s bountiful, slightly twangy score, which is deceptively challenging. Ogle has some very nice vocal moments, particularly with a chipper number titled “Little Lamb From Alabama” and a moving song called “I Don’t Need a Roof,” but she also needs better vocal control on some of her higher notes.
As the son, Cardenas is too broad in his bitterness, too seething, which is something that stronger direction could have smoothed. I get it: Will is ticked off at his father. But too often scenes unfold between Edward and Will with a uniform grimness on Cardenas’ part that needs more nuance.
Another issue for me: some of Jeanette Derr’s costumes. Many are bright, fun and creative. Others are problematic. The first rule of a costumer is to do no harm to your actors (unless called for specifically as part of the show’s concept or narrative), and too many costumes in this show do not flatter the body types involved. Community theater actors often don’t have the “stage bodies” we expect from professionals, and the costume design should take that into account. (Plus, there was one near wardrobe malfunction at the Saturday evening performance I attended that involved a pair of circus pants and a little too much exposed skin.)
Yet the show also has some bouncy, meaningful moments. Cardenas gives us more complexity as the second act progresses. Maddie Williams, as Edward’s high school girlfriend, is a standout. Camille Gaston lights up the stage as the Witch. And Tommie Hill, playing a circus proprietor, is a charming highlight.
The set, which includes a pier that extends out into the audience, is a nice design touch, bringing the musical down to an intimate scale, and David Esquivel’s lighting design nicely creates a nostalgic mood.
Finally, there’s substance and introspection nestled among the laughs and sentimentality, including a powerful emotional wallop at the end. There’s lots here to chew on for fathers and sons, those who love them, circus fans, daffodil lovers – and anyone who has ever told a big (or little) fish tale.
- Through Sunday
- Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma
- www.selmaartscenter.com, 559-891-2238
- $19, $17 seniors, $14 children