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Friday, July 29, 2016


Chris Ensweiler and Zeb Kovell in Big Fish at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

If you need a break from politics or horrible news of the terrorist attack or shooting of the day, I have a suggestion. Go see a delightful new adaptation of the Broadway musical Big Fish at Taproot Theatre, in Seattle. It's a worthy way to celebrate the 40th Anniversary Season of one of Seattle's best theaters. You might remember the novel, by Daniel Wallace, or the Columbia Motion Picture (book written by John August, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, as in the case of this adaptation as well). However, if you haven't seen this version, well, you haven't seen it and might be sorry if you don't. This talent filled production, under Scott Nolte's fine direction, is waiting for you in Taproot's Jewell Mainstage Theatre now through August 13, 2016. Beyond the light-hearted entertainment to be had, this musical will take you on a more profound and touching journey than you expect. 

Sarah Russell and Margaret Lamb in Big Fish at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Too many musicals I've seen have great songs and dances wrapped around a shallow plot. You won't find that in Big Fish, in spite of its fanciful set of characters. They include a giant (Nick Watson), a mermaid (Carly Squires Hutchison), a witch (Sarah Russell), and other fun personalities who appear in the stories traveling salesman father, protagonist Edward Bloom (Chris Ensweiler) tells his young son, Will Bloom (Zeb Kovell on the night I was there, but also played by Teigun Pesce). In all of them, he is suspiciously the hero. He presents these stories as fact, but they sound too outlandish. Although entertained by his father's tales while still a boy, Will would trade all of them for more time spent together. The adult Will Bloom (Tyler Todd Kimmel) comes to have distain for what he believes is just his father's overactive imagination and a poor attempt to make himself impressive to the son he leaves alone too much of the time.

Nick Watson and Chris Ensweiler in Big Fish at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
When the musical opens, Will has grown up to be a rather serious and pragmatic young adult, inclined to pessimism, who worries that his father's outlandish stories will be an embarrassment at his upcoming wedding to the soon-to-be Josephine Bloom (Emily Shuel). We can sense the disconnect right away and it becomes the primary conflict of this tale. When sadness befalls the family, both must finally face head-on, and try to resolve, their differences. 

Loving them both is Edward Bloom's ever-devoted wife and mother to Will, Sandra Bloom (Chelsea LeValley) and Will's bride, Josephine Bloom (Emily Shuel). Both were charming in their roles. Unlike Will, who sees himself as misunderstood, these two women embrace Edward's personality and do their best to bring the father and son together. The fact that Josephine is pregnant introduces a whole new dynamic, with Will anticipating his own role as a father.

Chelsea LeValley and Chris Ensweiler in Big Fish at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Perfectly cast, Ensweiler's energetic and charismatic stage presence gives the show its most memorable vibe, but I was delighted to discover the talents and beautiful singing voice of LeValley in her role as his wife. This is her first production at Taproot, and I trust she will return since she did such a great job. I also especially enjoyed Kimmel's fine voice. Although there were times when I felt certain voices did not mesh well, and heard a few flat notes, overall, they were very good, as was the acting.

A simple, but well designed and flexible set served the production's needs perfectly. Colorful and clever costumes brightened the stage and gave personality to the characters. I loved the way Costume Designer Sarah Burch Gordon (whose work I have always admired), handled the challenge of having a mermaid walk around on stage and how she made Watson into a convincing giant. I also enjoyed the excellent live music under the direction of Edd Key, with the volume at just the right level. 

Big Fish has been advertised as a tale about how every father wants to be a hero to his son and how a man will be remembered for his stories. I see an equally universal message but far deeper truth—we never really, truly, know our parents. As children, and even adults, most of us are guilty of viewing those who brought us into the world only through the filter of our own vanity and as if their lives, too, began with our birth. I don't have my parents any longer. Now, through their diaries, old photos, and the words of others outside the family who knew them as young people, I try to discover the big picture of their personalities, motivations, and dreams. They really were much more than simply my mom and dad. I wish we could have stepped out of our generational roles and formed truer friendships.

Will Bloom also discovered some truths too, and surprises, both of which the love in his heart finally allowed him to see. Maybe those stories his father told weren't so outlandish after all.

Give yourself or someone else the gift of a ticket to Big Fish. Call (206) 781-9707 or click here. It's the perfect feel-good summer production.