A wealth of talent and ingenuity has gone into the Aurora Fox production of Big Fish — too bad the musical itself is no big deal. Based on Daniel Wallace’s novel, which became a 2003 film directed by Tim Burton, Big Fish is a story about tall tales. Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman from a small Alabama town, tells these tales — which feature a mermaid, a werewolf, a fortune-telling witch and a giant fish, among other magical creatures — to his son, Will. Enchanted as a youngster, Will becomes more skeptical as he matures, noting that his father always keeps himself firmly at the center of all his stories and appears unable to shift focus when his family needs him. The relationship between father and son is at the heart of the narrative, which also explores questions about the nature of Edward’s fantasy life: Is he purely self-aggrandizing, or is he trying to teach his son important lessons about the need for heroism, how to push back the boundaries of the possible, the uniqueness of every individual human being we encounter and the role of magic in our ordinary, everyday lives?
Producer Charles Dean Packard has explained that he saw Big Fish on Broadway and was moved by what he saw, but felt “they had buried the story in the BIG. The heart was still there in the text and lyrics, but it was smothered in flashy numbers and special effects.” So he and director John Ashton agreed that this Aurora Fox production would focus more on the story than on spectacle. To their credit, they’ve achieved this. The sets and special effects — all by Packard himself — are ingenious without dwarfing the performers or the action. Piper Lindsay Arpan’s choreography is lively, inventive and often charming. The sound is kept at an ear-pleasing level, so that the many fine voices in the cast — particularly those of Kevin Schwartz as Edward, Matt Summers as Will and Megan Van De Hey as Edward’s wife, Sandra — can shine.
At first, all of this is quite enchanting, as Edward urges Will to “Be a Hero,” shows him how to use the Alabama Stomp to catch fish (you stomp hard on the ground and dozens of fish fly out of the river), and encounters a witch who removes his fear of death by revealing how he will die. There’s a gorgeous moment, beautifully staged, when Edward proposes to Sandra in a flashback, and a fascinatingly odd song and dance number called “Little Lamb From Alabama” that’s performed with feet alternately flat and flexed by Sandra and two friends.
But the characters are stereotypical. Young Will is upright and a bit priggish almost all the way through. (Will he soften? You know the answer already.) His fiancée, Josephine, is sweet-natured, clingy and — of course — pregnant with his son. Sandra is relentlessly nurturing, always laughing good-humoredly or bustling off to cook dinner; she has no concern at all for her own life and well-being, only Edward’s. Edward himself should have some complexity; we’re eventually supposed to see the visionary behind the teller of tall tales. But how can we when those tales are flat and unimaginative and sound as if someone had tossed together bits and pieces of fairy stories while leaving out their structure and all metaphorical and psychological implications? Toward the show’s end, Will discovers that Edward did once accomplish a major feat of altruism and courage, one he never boasted about or even discussed. This revelation would have been effective if the feat had actually been believable and a contrast to the fantastical tales that had gone before, but it’s a silly, impossible story presented in the same goofy storybook style.
The songs are derivative and the lyrics pure Hallmark Card; the story is too thin to support the weight of this well-intentioned production. Again and again, I looked for a little tension or surprise, but any conflict that arose was rapidly and often magically resolved. I kept hoping the Giant would be even a little fearsome before Edward’s relentless good nature brought him around, or that Will’s suspicions about his father’s infidelity would prove correct — anything to counter the anodyne sweetness of the evening.
Big Fish, presented by the Aurora Fox through March 22, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, aurorafox.org.