‘Big Fish’ is quite the catch at City of Fairfax Theatre Company

Prepare to be reeled in by a big cast, a whopper of a story, and larger-than-life characters in this buoyant musical.

In an age of QR codes and digital playbills, how satisfying that the City of Fairfax Theatre Company not only furnishes meaty programs to accompany its perfectly seasoned Big Fish but also gives the audience a role in the unfurling romance onstage, using the booklets as props.

Another delightful throwback: an 11-piece orchestra, breathtakingly conducted by CJ Redden-Liotta.

Alicia Zheng as the Witch and Peter Marsh as Edward Bloom in ‘Big Fish.’ Photo by Heather Regan.

Prepare to be reeled in by a big cast, a whopper of a story, and larger-than-life characters in this buoyant musical directed and produced by Amanda Herman Snellings. Based on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and the 2003 surrealistic Tim Burton film, Big Fish examines the friction between an aging Edward Bloom — a Southern serial storyteller and traveling salesman — and his NYC-based journalist son, Will, who’s on the cusp of starting his own family.

Will is also reporting the biggest story of his life: trying to uncover who his father really is before he’s left with only his legacy. “My father talked about a lot of things he never did and I’m sure he did a lot of things he never talked about,” he muses during his fact-finding mission.

Although this work originated just 10 years ago, it has the feel of an old-time musical — a song every few minutes, and sprinkled with just enough hayseed and corn. Shucked, after all, was nominated for nine Tonys this past season, so maybe a little nostalgic family entertainment is what we all crave.

The smorgasbord of Big Fish characters borrows lightly from such classics as The Princess Bride (a suitor who would do anything to win over his true love) and Don Quixote/Man of La Mancha (a man believing in impossible possibilities, tilting at supernatural foes). While eulogies end up framing most people’s lives, painting them as more extraordinary than they were, Edward Bloom wastes no time setting the record great.

Top: Peter Marsh as Edward Bloom and Nidhi Vasudevan as Young Will; bottom: the entire cast Bloom in ‘Big Fish.’ Photos by Heather Regan.

His tall tales — which son Will catalogs along with his empath wife, Josephine (Peyton Avery) — range from war stories to battling dragons. He joins the circus, befriends a giant, kisses a mermaid, and, yes, boasts mad fishing skills. Peter Marsh measures up valiantly as Edward, the myth and the man. Flexing his acting muscles to play both young and old Edward, Marsh anchors almost every scene and ensures that every word — whether a lyric or Dad joke — hits its mark. The only bad mark comes from a wig resembling a muskrat.

As grown-up Will, Noah Mutterperl is a humdinger in all respects. His beseeching “Stranger,” early in Act One, elevates an occasionally humdrum score by composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, The Addams Family) and soars with optimism — and an insanely well-strung high G. Other vocal standouts include Alicia Zheng as The Witch, who forecasts the course of Bloom’s life while leading a coven of sultry dancers, with magic lighting effects by Beth Becker; and Maura Lacy, who as Sandra, Edward’s “only fish in the sea” soulmate, delivers a soulful hymn to him, “I Don’t Need a Roof,” while cradling him on the floor.

Lacy also showcases fine and fancy footwork when Sandra auditions for the circus and, later, fronts a USO corps chorus line. Choreography by Stacey Yvonne Claytor is serviceable and cute for those in the cast who can’t stretch much beyond wedding dancing (if only they could have landed the beat in sync doing the Alabama Stomp) and turns eye-popping when executed by a crew of featured dancers — including Sharon Petersen, the wife of state Sen. Chap Petersen, whose district includes the City of Fairfax.

Although physical fight choreography (Katie Warner) is fleeting, Herman Snellings proves matchless in directing the verbal spats between father and son. Their timing is realistic and raw, and even when talking over each other, the dialogue cuts deep.

Superior acting is a hallmark of CFTC shows, and with such a large ensemble, from kids to veterans, it’s hard to pick favorites. But Andy Shaw as ringmaster Amos nearly steals the show. His repartee with wisecracker Marcus Pennisi as Karl the Giant — who mastered stilts for this production and even boogies down from on high — is hilarious. Alabama accents are nailed by Lacy and Andreas Moffett, playing Don Price, Edward Bloom’s longtime rival both on the playing field and in the love arena. Moffett also showcases pipes that leave you wanting more. Nidhi Vasudevan delivers a robust performance as young Will. And Eli Nygaard tickles the funny bone in bits as a fisherman and a bugler.

For all the colorful imagery and costumes (Lori Crockett), this production’s set is spartan, mostly consisting of a dock darting into the pit, an elevated platform with two staircases, and two trellises near the wings that light up as gateways to the swamp, a cave, and other storied portals. (The stairs do spin from bland to bedazzled to represent the Big Top.) Projections by scenic designers Olivia and Jason Hinebaugh help add atmosphere, with whimsical GIF and Etch A Sketch effects. At one point a photographer is shooting photos onstage, and the results “instamatically” appear above.

Sound designer Paul Pesnell gives the giant’s voice resonance and, through live mixing, fills a critical role in the storytelling, balancing the orchestra, kids’ voices, and an un-mic’d but boisterous chorus. Only Josephine’s equipment seemed faulty on opening night, although her voice of reason rang clearly when delivering one of many pearls of wisdom: “If you understand the stories, you’ll understand the man.”

Beginnings and endings get tangled up in the yarns of Big Fish, as dual timelines and dueling perspectives are blended. As for what separates fact from fiction in the stories handed down from generation to generation? Perhaps suspending disbelief is not just the duty of a purveyor of art. It could also be an act of charity because, in the end, what’s said with conviction and love is true enough.

Big Fish — try to catch this one.

Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Big Fish plays through July 29, 2023, presented by the City of Fairfax Theatre Company performing at Katherine Johnson Middle School, 3801 Jermantown Rd., Fairfax, VA. Purchase tickets ($15–$25, plus small service fees) online or email info@fairfaxcitytheatre.org.

Accessibility: There will be ASL interpreters at the July 28 performance.

COVID Safety: Masks are not required but recommended. CFTC’s complete COVID-19 policy is here.

Musical Numbers

Act I
Be the Hero
I Know What You Want
I Know What You Want (Reprise)
Just Take Another Look
Stranger
Magic in the Man
Ashton’s Favorite Son
Out There on the Road
Little Lamb From Alabama
Time Stops
Closer to Her
Daffodils

Act II
Red, White, and True
Fight the Dragons
Stranger (Reprise)
This River Between Us
I Don’t Need a Roof
Start Over
Start Over (Reprise)
What’s Next
How It Ends
The Procession
Be the Hero (Reprise)

Music and lyrics — Andrew Lippa
Book — John August
Director & Producer — Amanda Herman Snellings
Music Director — Dr. CJ Redden-Liotta
Stage Manager — Bridget Tunstall
Choreography — Stacey Yvonne Claytor
Scenic & Projections Design — Olivia and Jason Hinebaugh
Lighting Design — Beth Becker
Costume Design — Lori Crockett
Sound Design — Paul Pesnell
Props Design — Rebecca Kalant
Hair & Makeup Design — Mary Frances Dini
Playbill — Liz D’Souza

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