Big Fish the Musical Has a Sterling Cast and Crew but the Plot Falls Short

Why is it that after sitting through Stages Repertory Theatre's four-star musical production of Andrew Lippa and John August's Big Fish, I feel as if I've been pelted by marshmallows? Get this goo off me!

It's not that the show isn't affecting, isn't performed by a sterling cast, isn't intelligently mounted; it's the show itself that's at fault. It's like a great big Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade float of overblown sentiment and concrete whimsy. I felt smothered, inundated.

Look, I'm as sentimental as your average everyday metrosexual and have been known to weep during the final scenes of Disney's Pinocchio – another father/son epic saga, only with better songs and a doozy of a villain in Monstro the whale – but Big Fish is shameless in tugging one's heart strings. Tugging, hell, it plays them like a Strad. But it's devoid of suspense, much conflict and any notable character development. We can hear the creative gears grinding behind the curtain, just like we can predict the outcome after the second scene of Act I. We know exactly where this is going. This is the worst type of theatrical blackmail: easy and pat, but, oh, so smooth. Now, how are the backstage wizards going to distract us?

To be frank, I've never read Daniel Wallace's 1998 “novel of mythic proportions,” nor seen Tim Burton's 2003 movie adaptation that starred Albert Finney (old Dad), Ewan McGregor (young Dad) and Billy Crudup as tall-tale-telling father and estranged disbelieving son, or experienced Susan Stroman's $14 million (!) Broadway extravaganza, which ran for a measly three months and lost its producers their crisp Brooks Brothers shirts, but it's easy to see why this show runs as if on a treadmill. There's a lot of heavy breathing, but no one's going anywhere.

Songs are dropped in just because, well, this is a musical and there had better be songs. Lippa (john & jen; The Addams Family; The Wild Party; You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown) knows his way around a show tune, and while he has patterned his palette after Sondheim, he overlays Fish with a tasty Southern drawl, but not too far removed from Broadway's twangy belt. Listen to Lippa's opening number, “By the Banks of a River,” with its churning Alabama backwater fiddle and pictorial suggestiveness; or the fragrant love duet, “Time Stops,” in which Dad (an impressive Kregg Dailey) spies his heart's desire and future wife, Sandra (the multi-faceted Holland Vavra), at the circus. It's an exquisite ballad, musically building in intensity by raising the key, of course, but still emotionally satisfying because it's a really beautiful song. As is Dad's other love ballad, “Daffodils,” augmented by a yellow drop that cascades from above and falling petals that caress the young lovers. Most of the other numbers are filler, go on too long or are superfluous.

While the music is harmless, it's Lippa's lyrics that are trash. Must every line rhyme? This incessant couplet form, like a sonneteer gone bonkers, grates almost immediately and leads to that frustratingly banal “june, moon, spoon” seesaw rhythm that's monotonous and unsurprising. What a letdown. Every lyric sounds like a '50s Hallmark card. Where's the wit, the charm, the showstopping cleverness? Where's the fun?

Obviously it's not in the hyper-extended fairy tale that is the book's core. Traveling salesman Dad lives large through his wondrous stories, spinning fiction like a deranged Homer. During his adventures, he meets a mermaid, a witch who tells his fortune, a friendly giant, a werewolf (don't ask, because it comes out of nowhere and makes no sense), a tawdry circus troupe and his unrequited high school love (a delightfully lovely Chelsea Ryan McCurdy). He even saves his old town from inundation, gets shot out of a cannon and persuades fish to fling themselves into a bucket when he does the “Alabama Stomp.” It's all a bit tiresome and twee. If we knew just a little bit about Dad and why he lives to tell such whoppers, this assortment of fish tales might hang together. Now it's a string of vignettes fit for kiddies, and I'm not so sure they won't be bored, too, by the choppiness. Nothing happens, except during Dad's incessant yarns. Dad's not really here at all. Which leads to...

His grown son, Will (Travis Kirk Coombs), is a prig and wants to discover Dad's history, shearing away the fables and getting to the truth. He's not the only one waiting impatiently for something to happen. He's unhappy and discontented because Dad was always away on the road and never home to be a proper father. Yes, it's that musty dramatic canard, Dad doesn't love me.

Will's such a pill it's hard to believe that little boy Will (the marvelous and imp-like scene-stealer Coen Ogier) grew up into such a hard-boiled egg. For all of Coombs's vocal dexterity and oomph, he can't turn sour Will into somebody sweet we might like. Regardless, we root for Dad. At least he's the life of the party. Finding the hidden key into his locked life doesn't seem so important when the tales he spins are so adroitly presented. But that's all Fish is, more tales. At the end, when Dad goes off to the big river in the sky (no spoiler; we've figured that out a long time before), he leaves his son with at least a new love of talk. Will now spins yarns for his young son. Not much of a show here, nor much of a moral.

What is here, and there's plenty of it in evidence, is the depth of Houston talent to work stage magic and put this palaver across with a straight face. It's no surprise that Dailey is nonpareil at this sort of thing. A robust song-and-dance man, he turns Ed Bloom into a theatrical life force, whooping and wailing through the southland. A musical veteran of productions all over town, he is reason enough to see Fish. The show doesn't work, but Dailey makes it eminently worthy. We're happy to sit through it because watching him is such a delight. And Vavra turns her mega-watt charm and radiant voice to expert advantage, even though Mom is a character much like June Cleaver or Aunt Bee, only darker; you know, the eternal matriarch, silently managing her big papa bear and holding down the fort because she loves the lug no matter what.

But what's with the tinny amplification? Stages is so intimate, who needs it? Certainly not Dailey, Vavra or Coombs. The unruly balance between voice and orchestra (whose members could use a few more rehearsal days) is often off by significant decibels, which throws the show entirely out of whack. And their head mikes are distracting, making everyone look like air traffic controllers or society mavens with ill-fitting tiaras. Whatever, it's not a good look, and totally unnecessary.

Director/choreographer Mitchell Greco uses his considerable charm in sweeping the show's faults under the rug. Although some effects fall flat – that roll-down shadow curtain backdrop could be utilized with more finesse – Greco lets the cast rip and overlays the musical with a piquant, childlike wonder and delight. He's a deft director, no doubt about it, and the show, segmented and meandering as it is, flows like a country stream. The game ensemble includes Faith Fryer, Gabby Greer, Blake Jackson, Chase McCurdy, L. Jay Meyer, Taylor Siebeneicher and RobinVan Zandt. Jodi Bobrovsky's scenic design is minimal but effective, and those two jutting piers stage right and left are a picturesque sure touch.

Big Fish is no Broadway classic. While few, its pleasures are quaint and quilt-like, fraying but comfy. If it makes no lasting dramatic sense, at least the songs are pretty, if you tune out the lyrics. And it does showcase Dailey, whose performance is a show in itself. Kids will probably enjoy the fantastical elements, but you'll have to elbow them awake a few times. I could have used a poke or two myself.

Big Fish continues through June 26 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For more information, call 713-527-8669 or visit stagestheatre,com. $21-$51.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover