Cast and inventive staging gives ‘Big Fish,’ the play, new life

Lauren Kennedy Brady and Timothy Gulan in Theatre Raleigh's "Big Fish."Jennifer Robertson Photography

Long-time Chapel Hill resident Daniel Wallace has seen his novel, “Big Fish,” go from a national best-seller to a Tim Burton movie and a Broadway musical. The big stage version wasn’t successful, but a streamlined revamping has given the show new life.

While some problems remain, Theatre Raleigh’s production minimizes them effectively in a heart-warming, highly imaginative staging. The cast is first-rate and the technical elements are eye-popping, but it’s director Eric Woodall’s ever-dependable professionalism and vision that make this version a must-see.

Woodall sought a way to unify the numerous episodes in this story of an estranged son reconnecting with his dying father. When Will was young, Edward entertained him with fantastical tales of his life, adventures that included mermaids, witches and giants. Once Will was able to recognized them as fabrications, he began despising his father for not telling the truth. Only at Edward’s deathbed does Will come to realize it was his father’s way of making an ordinary life extraordinary.

Woodall’s inventive solution places the show in the family’s spacious attic. As Will remembers Edward’s stories, they are acted out using suitcases, chairs, old clothes and other packed-away items as set pieces, props and costumes. Woodall’s precise staging leaves no detail unconsidered, allowing the story to flow continuously with cast members entering and exiting from various sections of the set and the audience.

Abbey O’Brien’s stage-filling choreography adds pizazz to the big numbers.

Timothy Gulan’s Edward runs the gamut from garrulous and dominating to loving and tender, an engagingly flawed character. Chris Dwan’s Will is sympathetically frustrated and confused, moving in his ultimate understanding of his father’s love. Lauren Kennedy makes an extremely sympathetic Sandra, Edward’s wife. All three have strong voices that shine, despite Andrew Lippa’s uninspired songs, while they make the most of John August’s pithy, witty dialog.

Mili Diaz is a sweet Josephine, Will’s wife; Paul Hinkes becomes an audience favorite as Karl, the giant; and Shanelle Nicole Leonard excels as both young and old Jenny, Edward’s first sweetheart. The other cast members all deserve credit for the production’s success: Adam Poole, Carlos Alcala, Chanda Branch, Areon Mobasher, Lydia Tart and Keegan Story.

The show takes a while to click, grabbing the audience only as the first act ends. But Act Two brings it to an emotionally satisfying finish, one with universal messages of human foibles and forgiveness.

“Big Fish,” presented by Theatre Raleigh

Where: Kennedy Theatre, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St. Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. July 12-14, 18-21; 2 p.m. July 14, 21; 3 p.m. July 15, 22
Tickets: $32.50-$35
Info: 919-832-9997 or theatreraleigh.com

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