With vaccinations reducing the Covid hospitalization rates, and rapid tests readily available, local theaters have been able to re-open with precautions. I am thrilled to report that our local theaters all managed to survive the shutdown, and are back with live performances.
For the most part, they have chosen lavish Christmas numbers for December. The Empty Space is the exception, choosing not to compete in the Christmas Wars, but to go with a musical that they had planned to show nearly two years ago. As the result of the delay (and cast members leaving for further education, etc.), some changes in casting had to be made, and a few other adjustments were in order. However, they put it together, and made a fun show of it.
The musical is based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, and a later Tim Burton movie. It is unusual for a stage production to come after the movie version - usually it is the other way around - but that’s what happened in this case. The musical is one of those feel-good, wholesome sort of throwbacks to the golden age of musicals. Which isn’t a bad thing - after all the darkness of the last several years, a little happiness and hope for reconciliation is welcome.
The story is told through flashback stories, so putting together the plot is a bit of a challenge. Also, I don’t want to give spoilers if I can avoid it.
Let’s start with the title. “Big Fish” has multiple layers. To start with, near the beginning, we see Edward Bloom (is that intended to be a Ulysses reference?) fishing with his son Will, and Edward goes into one of his many tall tales, about teaching a hapless fisherman to do the “Alabama Stomp” to scare fish out of the water. Will catches his big fish - a good memory of himself and his dad - but as usual the size of the fish grows with each telling. In fact, Edward has, as we come to understand, constructed a mythological version of his own past that is one “big fish story,” mostly untrue, inconsistent with each telling, but highly amusing.
But there is another layer to the title. One of the true things about Edward is that he grew up in the very small Alabama town of Ashton, and was the proverbial “big fish in a small pond.” He is popular, loved, and dates the “prettiest and blondest” girl in the town, Jenny. But, deep down, he wants to get away and see the world.
Fast forward to the present, and Will is all grown up, successful, and about to be married to Josephine. Edward guesses correctly that Josephine is pregnant, and then proceeds to make an awkward and unwanted announcement of that fact at the reception. (Fortunately, Josephine is a forgiving woman…) This is just the last of a series of ways that Edward has disappointed Will, and the two of them seem strangers.
Edward is hiding a couple of secrets, though. One is that he is fighting cancer (which will eventually kill him by the end of the play.) The other is, well, something in his past that I am not going to spoil. When Sandra, wife to Edward and mother to Will, finally reveals the cancer, Will and Edward try to reconnect. This process of reconnecting is interspersed with tales from the past, some of which are clearly made up, and others which turn out to have some truth. We never know for sure what is true and what is fiction.
As far as themes, Edward’s is “be the hero of your own life.” (That’s the opening song…) And eventually, Will comes to embrace this idea in his relationship with his own son. Deeper down, there is the question of our own self-conception. All of us tell stories about who we are, and what our lives mean. None of us can see ourselves objectively, and the stories we tell about ourselves and to ourselves are, whether we like it or not, a mix of fact and fiction, just like Edward’s - ours are just less obvious. This isn’t a bad thing: after all, if we are not the heroes of our own life at some level, how do we function and maintain any level of self esteem?
There is a telling scene early in the play, when the young Edward and his friend and eventual nemesis Don go out to find the rumored witch in the forest. Don gets his fortune told, and it is along the lines of (the exact line eludes me): “You will live a mediocre life. You will have deep disappointments, and a few minor triumphs. And then you will die.” Yep. Actually, that’s accurate for most of us - myself very much included. I have come to embrace having an ordinary, mediocre, insignificant life. I’m honestly more comfortable that way. It’s not a boring life, or a bad life, but nobody will remember it 100 years from now. Again, that is most of humanity ever. And that is okay.
So, about this particular production, which runs two more weekends. (So yeah, go see it if you are local.)
The Empty Space has been known since its inception for doing a lot with a little. Ticket prices are low, they operate in a converted storefront - an intimate venue where you can see the acting up close. Performers don’t get the benefit of microphones. Because of the small space, sets have to be creative and flexible. Budgets are clearly modest. But TES makes the most of what they have by maintaining high artistic values and dynamic energy. These are people who are highly creative, committed to their craft, and devoted to the arts.
Casting was very good in this version, with the caveat that there are only so many actors in the community setting who can sing, dance, and act at a high level. In this case, I would say that the acting part was the best, with a bit of a dropoff on the vocal side after the best of the actors.
Sandra (Nancee Steiger) and Edward (Shawn Rader)
To start with, Nancee Steiger has always been a local headliner. She has been amazing in every role we have seen her in - and it is a really wide range of characters. In this production, she was Sandra, who had to play the part of the devoted wife, the steady person who held the family together, the grieving spouse, the wise mother, the young girl in love, and so on. And also carry a good bit of the singing. She did this with aplomb. I am always impressed with the way she completely becomes whatever character she is playing, no matter what the character.
Edward (Shawn Rader) telling a tall tale to young Will (Landon Antongiovanni)
Shawn Rader took on the equally challenging role of Edward, and I loved his performance as well. He is a better singer than I realized - as Benny in RENT recently, he didn’t have to sing much. I haven’t seen him in much more than that, but he has been in a lot of local productions that I missed over the years. In any case, another fine actor that really sold the part. His tall tales were pretty believable, and his awkwardness with Will was perfectly portrayed.
Adult Will (Alex Mitts) and Edward (Shawn Rader)
Speaking of Will, the multitalented Alex Mitts played that part, which I thought in some ways was the most challenging role. He gets to be more or less the straight man, and the one person in the family who fails to really understand anyone else. I loved the acting that Mitts brought to this role - again, believable and he really sold it. His vocals were a bit shaky in spots - I know that isn’t his strong point, so I hate to complain. It’s a tough job that I couldn’t do, after all. Particular kudos for never letting his character seem flat. In so many cases, he had to play things so very straight, and the lines (like in any musical with a bit of a contrived story - hey, that’s how musicals are) were not always the most dramatic. Which is why I was impressed that he held the character and the tension and made the most of the moments.
Shelbe McClain is another stage veteran who has served in a number of roles. (I particularly liked her work in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.) In this case, as Josephine, she went with a kind of daft, neurotic vibe. I’m not sure what the original role looked like, so hard to compare.
One of the fantasy sequences.
A few of the other parts stood out. I liked Eric Leminen as Karl the Giant - he literally dropped his voice an octave for the role - and got powerful projection out of it too. Nicely done. Jake Chivington is another young actor that has been here there and everywhere in the last few years, mostly in supporting roles. His performance as Amos the Ringleader was compelling and as believable as a possibly fictional character can be.
Karl (Eric Leminen)
I’ll also give the usual shoutout to the various ensemble actors, the sound and light folks, and so on. They are the glue that holds a production together.
One final note: I am happy to report that The Empty Space requires either full covid vaccination or a negative test for those with valid exemptions. Yes, they check at the door, and yes, I have seen them turn people away for failing to provide documentation. This is how we keep safe and keep theater open.
In any case, it’s a good production and worth seeing if you have time this month. (And also, check out the 2022 season - some good ones on tap.)
For more: esonline.org, or on Facebook.
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