Encore! Capsule Reviews of Near to Normal, Big Fish, The Cripple of Inishmaan

Get out of the cold and into a warm theater! Here are capsule reviews of recently reviewed productions.

Big Fish
A wealth of talent and ingenuity went into this production of Big Fish, but unfortunately, the musical— a story about tall tales — just isn’t worth it. Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman from a small Alabama town, tells these tales – featuring a giant, mermaids and a fortune-telling witch, 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 this 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 how to push back the boundaries of the possible and the role of magic in our ordinary, everyday lives? At first, all of this is quite enchanting – but the story is thin, the songs derivative and the characters stereotypical. 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? Presented by the Aurora Fox through March 22, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, Read our full review here.

The Cripple of Inishmaan
Miners Alley has mounted a lively, funny, thought-provoking production of The Cripple of Inishmaan , which is set on one of Ireland's bleak Aran Islands. As depicted by Martin McDonagh, the people of the place have their own nasty, brackish culture. Billy, the cripple of the title, was orphaned when his parents drowned soon after his birth, in circumstances that are variously explained. He has been raised by the women he calls his aunties, Eileen and Kate. These two have their eccentricities, but they're still the most human of the play's characters. Johnnypateenmike is the town gossip, wheedling food in exchange for his stories, some of them meaningless, some whose meaning turns out to be the opposite of what it seems, and some important in unanticipated ways. Johnnypateenmike is locked in a relationship with his hateful, alcoholic mother, who refuses to die despite the fact that he plies her with booze. There's also Helen, the nasty girl Billy secretly fancies, who spends much of her energy tormenting her weak-minded brother, Bartley. Everyone's life is upended by news that a Hollywood director has arrived on the neighboring island of Inishmore to find actors for a film called Man of Aran. Billy decides to audition and cons fisherman Babbybobby into taking him to Inishmore. The plot is full of surprises and reversals, much of what you see isn't what it seems, and the role of gossip and storytelling in creating reality looms large. This is one of McDonagh's less violent works, though clearly its blows and beatings are meant to be relished, and much of the humor comes from the continual psychological torment that the characters inflict on each other. Presented by Miners Alley through March 8, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, Read the full review here.

Next to Normal
The musical Next to Normal garnered a Pulitzer for composer Tom Kitt and writer Brian Yorkey and high praise from critics, in part because it dealt with the ugly realities of mental illness — an unusual and courageous focus for a generally upbeat and unrealistic medium. At the center of the plot is Diana — smart, self-possessed and cynical, but, as we soon discover, fighting bipolar demons. Her disease can be off-putting: She’s querulous and angry, so absorbed by the rickety workings of her own mind that she can barely spare a moment’s attention for anyone else — but somehow you still empathize with her suffering and appreciate her brave and incisive attempts at humor. Diana never recovered from the loss of her first child, a son who died at eight months old and would have been eighteen at the time the action begins. Because of her obsession with him, she neglects her husband, Dan, who long ago set aside his own needs to take care of hers, and her daughter, Natalie, a perfectionist high-schooler who struggles to be seen and acknowledged by her parents and senses within herself the dangerous shards of her mother’s illness. Seventeen-year-old stoner Henry introduces her to pot and jazz; Natalie moves beyond his tutelage to embrace musical chaos and the dozens of pills and potions in her mother’s medicine cabinet. This is the most revelatory production of Next to Normal to hit town so far. Under Nick Sugar’s empathetic direction, all the singers perform with subtlety and finesse. Their fine voices aren’t overmiked; you can savor the musical dynamics and understand the lyrics. Donna Kolpan Debreceni’s musical direction always carries a kind of joyous skip, and she and her musicians provide a vital antidote to the score’s occasional portentousness. Margie Lamb played Diana well in a fine previous production. Now she’s even better. She owns every aspect of the role, giving us all the character’s complexities in one prickly, scintillating package. Jacquie Jo Billings is an appealing Natalie, so glowy and young at the beginning, so lost later. And Daniel Langhoff gives his all in a moving performance as weary, loving Dan. In all, there’s a lot to celebrate in this fully realized and emotionally rich production. Presented by Town Hall Arts Center through March 15, 2450 West Main Street, Littleton, 303-794-2787, Read the full review here.