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BIG FISH reconfigures Shea’s Smith space with a beautifully directed story of fathers and sons.

THE BASICS: BIG FISH, the musical by Lippa and August, presented by Second Generation Theatre, directed by Michael Walline, opened on October 12 and runs through October 28, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8, Saturdays at both 2 & 8, and Sundays at 2 at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main Street (right next door to Shea’s PAC) (847-1410). Full service bar. Open seating. Family friendly, but parents, you’ll want some tissues for yourself. Runtime: about 2 -1/2 hours. Here’s a trailer.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Based on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and the 2003 film by Tim Burton, BIG FISH is about friendship, family, and both the circle of and the meaning of life. As the play opens, we meet traveling salesman Edward Bloom, launching once again into one of his often-told fantastic personal adventures, even though his young son Will prefers to have him read a “real” bedtime story, from Homer’s Iliad, as printed in an actual book. Fast forward and Will, now a reporter and married to Josephine, and about to be a father himself, tries to make sense of his dying father’s many mythical accounts. While for years he has been angrily accusing his father of escaping from reality with made-up tales, we see that Will’s own view of reality might itself be a little too narrow to embrace some big truths. Now on a deadline he can neither postpone nor evade, Will grabs his reporter’s notebook and sets out on a fact-finding mission, only to find that, like a fisherman’s catch, truth can be bigger than he imagined.

Michelle Marie Roberts and Lou Colaiacovo as Sandra and Edward Bloom

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The presenting group, Second Generation Theatre, has brought forward elements that worked well for them when they produced WILD PARTY in 2013. In BIG FISH, they return to music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, incorporate the trade-mark big movement choreography of Buffalo’s Michael Walline, and re-carpenter a proscenium stage (audience all looking forward as at a movie theater) into a thrust stage (audience on three sides). This opened things up tremendously and put us in the middle of the action, as characters entered and exited from three different points, adding to a bit of the “Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” fantasy feel.

Cleverly going with the 12 person “small-cast edition” of the Broadway musical BIG FISH, this production makes the most of the cast also taking on utility roles. For example, Victoria Pérez who plays “The Witch” also plays The Mayor.  Jacob Albarella who plays the Circus Owner also plays the Bloom family doctor. In some shows, this would just be chalked up to good economics and the audience would be asked to provide a willing suspension of disbelief, whereas here, in this musical, that doubling added a magical, surreal (in a good way) element, such stuff as dreams are made of. What or who is real? Aha! No spoilers here.

Having now mentioned both a witch and a master of illusion, it’s time to give credit to the Director, Michael Walline, who has carefully separated the portrayal of the Bloom family from all the others who are playing out characters in the stories as told by the father. In simple terms, we in the audience have to believe that the Blooms are “real.” So there are special demands placed on Louis Colaiacovo as Edward Bloom married to Sandra Bloom as played by Michele Marie Roberts, with Ricky Needham as the son, Will Bloom, married to Josephine Bloom played by Brittany Bassett. These four had cinematically subtle body language and facial expressions that spoke volumes. These roles require great direction and great acting, and we got both.

But where’s the fun in reality? Well, almost everyone else in this musical has to take on other roles and to be a little larger than life and that includes Stevie Jackson as the first love, Bethany Burrows as the girl in the water, Bobby Cooke as the not-overly-bright Don Price and his brother Zacky Price played by Preston Williams, Karl the giant played by Dave Spychalski, with Alejandro Gomez and Alexandria Watts jumping into additional ensemble roles and Noah Bielecki playing young Will. Phil Farugia is the Musical Director.

Almost everyone plays two or more parts, including circus performers

All in all, this was a well-rehearsed, very entertaining, fast moving musical with some powerful musical hooks and clever, easy to get humor. But, what sets it apart is a clear vision of where things are going. And, as mentioned, it’s “family friendly” chock-full of zany characters, so my advice is to take your kids. Age range? Well, I would think 7th grade and up, depending on the ability to focus. And “family friendly” includes dad, too. It’s no secret that theatrical audiences are primarily female. But here, just as with the last play seen at The Smith Theater, ONCE IN MY LIFETIME, there is content that should be very appealing to dads of all ages.

By the way, it might seem a bit off-topic, but in this production, with his big black glasses, Will, as played by Ricky Needham, looks uncannily like Josh Groban, who is in a Netflix series playing a very by-the-book “serious” son, not a reporter but close enough, a detective, opposite an absentee dad who is prone to make things up, with the dad played by Tony Danza. It’s called THE GOOD COP, it’s on Netflix, and if you already enjoy it, you will enjoy the father-son dynamic, both good and bad, in BIG FISH. Or, after you see BIG FISH, you might want to check out THE GOOD COP on Netflix.

UP NEXT for Second Generation Theater: ANGELS IN AMERICA, Part I, Millennium Approaches, March 8-14, 2019. NINE, the musical, June 14-30, 2019.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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