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‘Big Fish’ and tall tales  

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review

I can identify with Edward Bloom. When he sings “We were born to wake each morn/Someplace we’ve never been,” that wanderlust gets to me too.

The difference is that I’m single and unencumbered. Edward is married, and son Will wishes his traveling salesman dad were around more, like for his soccer games.

Brandon Joel Maier, playing the role of Edward Bloom in “Big Fish,” steps up to bat as the cast cheers him on. (Photos courtesy of Lamb’s Players Theatre)

Instead, when dad is around, he’s spinning crazy fish stories, like being swallowed by one — and surviving. Or claiming to know how to make fish leap out of the water onto the riverbank so you can have that fish dinner.

“Big Fish” jumps back and forth in time, as Edward is reminded of yet another story he just has to tell.

But now Will is grown up and about to marry fiancée Josephine, and all he wants from his dad is a promise to refrain from monopolizing the reception with more fish stories or endless (embarrassing) toasts.

Caitie Grady as Josephine and Brandon Joel Maier as Edward Bloom in Lambs Player’s “Big Fish”

But people don’t change that easily, so get ready to hear about Edward’s rich fantasy life. There’s a mermaid (Mary Joe Duggan), a giant named Karl (Jack French), a traveling carnival run by Amos Calloway (John Rosen) and best of all, Anise Ritchie’s wondrous fine Witch.

Lamb’s Players Theatre presents “Big Fish” the musical, based on the 2003 Tim Burton film and the Daniel Wallace book of the same title. John August wrote the book (and also the screenplay for the film). Music and lyrics are by Andrew Lippa (who also wrote the music for “The Farnsworth Invention”).

There are several versions of this musical, with some song and cast changes. Moonlight Stage Productions did the big, splashy Broadway version a few seasons back.

(l to r) Gavin Reed August as Young Will and Maier in “Big Fish”

Lamb’s has opted for the smaller version that calls for just 12 actors. There’s something to be said for the intimacy of a smaller production, but this show about big stories seems to lose a little in translation when so confined.

Still, Lamb’s has a fine cast. It’s good to see Brandon Joel Maier back on the local stage as Edward, who loves his son Will but expresses it in ways the boy will not understand until much later. Gavin Reid August is charming as the young Will. Michael Cusimano’s adult Will shares a wonderfully poignant song with his father called “The River Between Us,” which begins this way:

          This river between us grows wider each day

          He talks, but he mostly has little to say.

          I beg him to separate truth from the tale,

          But the river invites him. 

In the end, Will understands that his father has not been trying to impress, but rather to inspire his son via the power of storytelling, and wants the boy to “be the hero of your story.”

All of the other actors are equally fine, and backed up by an excellent production team. Mike Buckley’s set is simple but versatile. Michael McKeon and Patrick Duffy’s projections are particularly effective, as are Jeanne Reith’s clever costumes. Nathan Peirson’s lighting and Patrick Duffy’s sound design set the tone effectively.

Conductor Andy Ingersol and his six fine musicians play from the top of this very high set.

“Big Fish” offers an often charming lesson in growing up. Stories are good, but the Witch has the best advice of all: “The ones who face their fears lead the most interesting lives.”

—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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