There’s no one like Edward Bloom, the traveling salesman and small town savior from Alabama who crossed paths with witches, mermaids, werewolves, and giants. His life sounds totally far-fetched, but getting to know the man behind the myths is great fun as seen in Epiphany Lutheran Church’s absolutely heartwarming local premiere of librettist John August and composer Andrew Lippa’s 2013 adaptation of “Big Fish.”
The 26th annual summer musical presentation of the Epiphany Players Drama Ministry, “Big Fish” is a whimsical account based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Daniel Wallace and the acclaimed 2003 Tim Burton film written by August. The relatively easygoing yet ailing Edward, happily married to the former Sandra Templeton, is thrown for a loop when his son Will presses him for answers to the fascinating tall tales he’s heard since he was a child. In his attempt to appease the soon-to-be-married Will, Edward proudly recalls his glory days, but his trips down memory lane are not without heartache or disagreement. As Edward nears the end of his life, Will, expecting a child of his own, ultimately grasps the importance of his wife Josephine’s reminder that “if you understand the stories, you’ll understand the man.”
When I saw “Big Fish” on Broadway, I can honestly tell you it was a big flop. Lippa’s flavorful songs were a saving grace (gorgeous ballad “I Don’t Need a Roof” is among the top tier of an underrated score), but an overblown design and lopsided conception (Norbert Leo Butz oddly and perplexingly portraying Edward from child to adult) chipped away at the material’s believability and resonance. Thankfully, Epiphany’s breezy staging, delightfully directed and choreographed by Megan Wean Sears, significantly alters the show’s pivotal generational scope by having three actors portray Edward and two actresses portray Sandra. Granted, Epiphany encourages large casts (this year’s company totals 75 and is double-cast per tradition), but in recognizing the possibilities afforded to multiple actors, Sears has truly changed the show for the better despite artistic liberties.
John Benjamin (an endearing, vocally strong everyman) and Brady Kress (a folksy charmer) bring authority and tenderness to the good-natured Edward with both interpretations culminating poignantly in Act 2’s deeply moving finale “How It Ends.” As the ever-supportive Sandra, Kandis Wean Gibson (recalling the depth and musicianship of role originator Kate Baldwin) and Kellie Daab (lovingly warm) are respectively and engagingly paired with Benjamin and Kress. In the middle of Act 1, when the action appealingly turns to Edward’s popular teenage years in his hometown of Ashton, Desmond Thomas (a chipper All-American) and Eric Thompson (a radiant pop tenor who will hopefully land a record deal one of these days) take the spotlight with terrific vibrancy. The teenage Sandra is wonderfully embodied by triple threats Brianna Russ (opposite Thomas) and Abby Kress (opposite Thompson). The bruised, frustrated Will arises with impactful introspection thanks to Jeffrey Mack (offering a soaring, lyric-driven rendition of “Stranger”) and Timmy Seiler (very contemplative and vulnerable). Kathy Meyer and Lily Cutler are sweetly sincere as Josephine.
Additionally noteworthy among a fine cast are Bobby Klosterman and John Morgan as Young Edward, Liam Utt and Curtis LeMieux as Young Will, Eric Pettit and Eryn Barrett as Will’s son, Brian Hoff and Mikey Fried as Karl the Giant, the flamboyance of Justin Matthews and Bobby Morgan as Amos Calloway, the fieriness of Margo Russ and Mia Bridgman as The Witch, Chris Scharf and Nick Kress as Don Price, Jessica Pettit and Kate Barrett as Jenny Hill, Bridget Miley and Laura Jacobs as teenage Jenny, the fancifulness of Sarah Crawford and Marisha Osowski as The Mermaid, Olivia Engler and Jessica Pettit as the USO Singer leading patriotic Act 2 opener “Red, White and True,” and Brianna Mallare and Maria Jasek as Sandra’s friends who join her for the cutesy “Little Lamb from Alabama.”
Along with the unified joy bursting throughout ensemble numbers “Be the Hero,” “Showdown” and “Out There on the Road,” Sears particularly creates a fierce routine for the Witches (dramatically clothed in black hooded capes by the consistently remarkable duo of Maria Klueber and Lori Watamaniuk for “I Know What You Want”) and a jubilant tap dance (“Red, White and True”). Still, prepare to be blown away by the breathtaking beauty of Act 1 finale “Daffodils,” teen Edward and Sandra’s heartfelt duet bolstered by the dazzling elegance of female dancers surrounding them while sprinkling the stage with daffodils. It is simply one of the most stunningly romantic sequences you’ll see on any stage this year.
In addition to Klueber and Watamaniuk, the first-rate production team includes music director David Brush, scenic designers Matt Carson and Tristan Cupp (providing an eye-catching proscenium featuring images of Edward’s various adventures and encounters), sound designer Chris Pentecost, lighting designer Ryan McCoy, prop designers Adrienne Ausdenmoore (Drama Ministry Chair) and Jason Hamen, assistant director/choreographer Sarah Egbert, and dance captain Abby Kress.
The proverbial love of storytelling and the desire to live one’s life bigger are vital attributes fueling this study of family, friendship and legacy. Edward Bloom may be a fantastical soul, but he’s relatable nonetheless. In fact, you may see one of your relatives or perhaps yourself within him. As Sandra reminds Will, “There is magic in the man, please find it while you can.” Kudos to Epiphany for bringing truly wondrous magic to a show that would still be running on Broadway if it had incorporated Sears’ inspired vision.
“Big Fish” continues through July 24 at Epiphany Lutheran Church, 6430 Far Hills Ave., Centerville. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors (60 and over), and $5 for children (5 and under). For tickets call, call (937) 433-1449 ext. 105. For additional information, visit www.epiphanydayton.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition, every summer a charitable organization is selected to receive a portion of the proceeds. This year’s beneficiary is the Storybook Project, a ministry centered on ensuring incarcerated parents have the opportunity to read to their children. Volunteers from Epiphany record these parents reading a children’s book of their choosing and a personal message to the child. Epiphany volunteers have been visiting prisoners since 2001 and have sent over 10,000 recordings and books.