UPPER DARBY— The musical “Big Fish” exacerbated an existential crisis I was having on the eve of my 30th birthday. A single line sung by the character Will Bloom in the song “Stranger” really struck a chord with me as I watched a preview of this Summer Stage production at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center: “Because after almost 30 years, I still don't know the man.” How peculiar that this line was uttered to me at this time in my life? Did I know myself?
But any problems I’m having to remedy the past 10 years with the next 10 pale compared to what Will is going through in “Big Fish." The context of that lyric he sang comes as he delves into the life his father, Edward, has truly lived. Edward has told his son numerous stories of extravagantly fantastic proportions including finding a giant in a cave, a mermaid teaching him to swim, saving a town from flooding, and taking a poisonous dart for a military general. But has Edward been telling Will the truth the whole time? Is he a mad man? A person who flies by the seam of his pants? All of the above?
Will goes through those psychologically questionable narratives as he starts a new family with his wife, this coming at a time when Edward has been given a fatal diagnosis for a tumor inside him. All of the major characters in “Big Fish” are accomplice to Will on an existential journey as they evaluate what their own places are in the world via the purview of a man, Edward, who may have had the most interesting life ever. The stories incorporate plenty of flashbacks and modern escapism to intrigue the audience into what is real, or a fictional exaggeration of the (semi-)truth. Can Will believe them? Why is it important that he knows the truth?
These are questions not fully realized in the show outside of Will achieving gratification of the investigation process.
Edward's stories are more intriguing than Will wanting to find out about their authenticity. I still don’t see what closure he was seeking, nor did I care. He should have been lucky that he had a creative parent to whip up such beautifully vivid stories instead of whipping up an existential crisis for himself, for his father. The shining moments together are when Will was a child and Edward sings two charming songs about living to fight off dragons and taking wonderful journeys ("Be the Hero" and "Fight the Dragons"). I wanted more of that connection throughout the show.
Where my existential crisis was already compromised by age before walking into the theater, sitting through the show provided yet another crisis: How does this show affect my existence in the theater? A show at two-and-a-half hours – a common length for a musical production – wore at my stamina to endure theater. The story gets drawn out in Act II with too many songs that delay Edward’s death, and my desire to see this saga wrapped up.
I actually liked the UDPAC’s staging because the production values, true to the center’s standards, are very good as usual. The costumes showered around so many different styles and times in an endless cavalcade of settings from low country living up to a spectacular circus. The set was particularly clever as a two-level structure that used its own space effectively, and most particularly as a mostly blank canvas for very effective projections.
Tristan Horan, the show’s projection designer, created 150 individual projection cues to create dozens of settings for Edward’s fantastical tall tales. I’m not a huge fan of extensive use of projection in theater, but it was really well done in this production. Summer Stage powerhouses Chris Monaco, Sarah DeNight and Malik Muhammad truly delighted in their respective roles as Edward Bloom, Sandra Bloom and circus leader Amos Calloway.
“Big Fish” plays strongly to the escapist part of our lives and the production values really tap into that. It dazzles and entices at times when you actually forget that it’s a story about a man trying to connect with his father. But this is a show that seems too long with too much music, which is no fault of Summer Stage. The PAC did mount a good production that was very nice to look at and its themes about family will make it a crowd pleaser to everyone, but me.
Upper Darby Performing Arts Center's Summer Stage program present "Big Fish Aug. 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 10 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets can be bought udpac.org or at the center box office.