by John Stoltenberg
The musical Big Fish is by any measure a feel-good show for the whole family, as evidenced by the buoyant and beautiful production now playing at The Keegan Theatre. But the main narrative arc in Big Fish has particular resonance for sons, a specific emotional current that touches anyone who grew from boy to man without ever really knowing his father’s love. This wound is familiar to many men, maybe most. And in one form or another, it can last a lifetime.
What has made so many grown men identify with and relate to Big Fish—with emotions so personal as to be inexpressible—is that it’s a fable of symbolic healing. At bottom Big Fish is a powerful story of symbolic reconciliation between an estranged father and son told through magical realism. It plays like a made-up kid’s tale, a boy’s wish come true beyond his imagining. But it’s explicitly couched in terms that grown men can privately understand. Decked out in amazing theatrics and amusing imagery, that core pulse connects father-longing sons subliminally to the musical by John August and Andrew Lippa as it did to its source, the film by Tim Burton. And the way the Keegan production directed by Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith keeps that primal pulse palpable is one of the show’s most remarkable qualities.
The show begins with a fish story. Edward Bloom, home from his work as a traveling salesman (Dan Van Why), tells his son Young Will (Erik Peyton) a whopper about a big one he once caught, and the boy is enthralled. In a song Edward sings to Young Will about witches, giants, mermaids, and such (“Be the Hero”). his fabulations grow and grow, and Young Will is spellbound. The scene is set in the boy’s bedroom; and as wonderfully played by Van Why and Payton, the rapport between them borders on rapture. Their extraordinary scene partnering becomes emblematic of a memory any son might wish he had of his own dad.
But Edward is away for long stretches. Will is hurt by his absence. And the older Will gets, the less enthralled he is by his father’s tall tales. The more his father tells them, the more annoyed Will gets. Will comes to regard his father’s far-fetched stories as deliberately distancing and deceitful. In a song called “Stranger,” Ricky Drummond as adult Will sings about Edward so wrenching it could be any father-wounded son’s anthem.
My father told me stories
I could never comprehend
In every tale he’d claim to be the hero
I’ve tried to understand him
But I wonder if I can…
Because after almost thirty years
I still don’t know the man
I wish I knew the man
Flash forward to Act Two (skipping over some terrific subplots): Early on there’s a scene when the painful emotions in the estrangement between Will and Edward flood the stage almost literally. The song is “This River Between Us,” a duet sung by Drummond and Van Why standing on opposide sides of the stage. The lyrics are so raw and Drummond’s and Van Why’s vocals are so searing that for any son who feels unknown by his father, or for any father who feels unknown by his son, the song could prompt what would be heartbreak if ever he felt how that feels.
This river between us
Grows wider each day
He talks but he mostly has little to say
I beg him to separate
The truth from the tale…
So why don’t I believe my father
When he says “I love you”?
This river between us is selfish and cold
It flows where it wants to
It can’t be controlled
My son doesn’t want me to be
What I am
He don’t give a damn
By the end of Big Fish, the abyss between these men is no more. It is bridged, and they are reconciled, through the legerdemain of brilliant storytelling and ebullient acting and singing. I won’t say how that happens. You have to see for yourself. It’s delightfully entertaining magical realism, after all, not theatrical therapy. But do not be surprised if afterward, moving memories of one’s own father’s life have been stirred and inspired.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.