WASHINGTON — Sometimes tall tales are the ones we need to hear the most.
“It’s Keegan’s 20th anniversary this year and this is the final show of the season,” co-director Colin Smith told WTOP. “I think it’s a good way to end 20 years with great storytelling.”
A decade after the 2003 Tim Burton movie earned four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, screenwriter John August adapted his own script into a 2013 Broadway musical.
“This is one of those few pieces that transferred from being a book to a movie really well, but it also begged to be a stage musical,” actor Dan Van Why said. “It’s one of those great stories that translates to all three mediums so well, because the story is so fantastical. It’s huge! It’s got a great big heart and it goes to great big places. It hits all ends of the spectrum.”
Based on the 1998 fantasy novel “Big Fish” by Daniel Wallace, the story follows 60-year-old traveling salesman Edward Bloom (Van Why), who tells tall tales to his loving wife Sandra (Eleanor J. Todd) and skeptical son Will (Ricky Drummond), a soon-to-be father himself.
“The story surrounds a father-son relationship, a bit estranged,” Van Why said. “The son feels that he never really got to know his father as he lived his life, more through just the large stories that he’s heard. So as his father’s life is coming to an end, they’re trying to reconcile that relationship, and he comes to find out the stories weren’t as far-fetched as he thought.”
As we explore these tall tales, the various fantasy elements come to life on stage.
“There’s all these stories of witches, mermaids, giants, circuses, werewolves,” Drummond said. “The son’s journey is figuring out what those stories mean and how they relate to his father.”
In order to separate fantasy vs. reality, Smith and co-director Mark A. Rhea work with set designer Matthew J. Keenan, lighting designer Allan Weeks and projection designer Patrick Lord to create a magical world that looks distinctly different from the real-world scenes.
“We’re using a fair amount of projection,” Smith said. “The story parts are a little more animated. [Lord] went with a theme of different storytelling methods, so you have some that look like comic books, some that look like Grecian urns, and some are projected video.”
Likewise, the songbook by Andrew Lippa (music/lyrics) similarly reflects reality vs. fantasy.
“The bigger scenes of the circus or with the giant are these big musical numbers that are really the crowd pleasers and what you think of with typical Broadway chorus numbers,” Drummond said. “The world based in reality is much more endearing, more intimate music.”
In Act I, the most famous song is “Be the Hero,” while in Act II it’s “Fight the Dragons.”
“‘Fight the Dragons’ is my favorite to perform,” Van Why said. “My other favorite is [when] Ellie sings this beautiful number called ‘I Don’t Need a Roof.’ It’s gorgeous! All I have to do is just lay there and listen to her sing it. It’s my favorite staging, but also my favorite number.”
Todd agrees that it’s her favorite to sing, though she also loves the staging of “Time Stops.”
“One of my favorite scenes from the movie is when he sees Sandra for the first time and the popcorn is suspended in air,” Todd said. “The way that they’ve captured that on stage is really unique and a cool mixture of the music. … Shout out to our choreographer Rachel Leigh Dolan, who’s made it come together in a really arresting image that’s a really cool duet.”
As for Drummond, his favorite musical number is the third-to-last song “What’s Next.”
“That’s sort of the reconciliation song, where my character Will starts to understand things and starts to become the father himself,” Drummond said. “It’s him sort of taking the reins and finally [where] his father has taught him all these lessons that he didn’t even know the seeds were in there, but this is where we see the blossoming, the ‘blooming’ of those lessons.”
In the end, expect an emotional, inspirational finale recalling George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), as we see all of the lives Edward has touched throughout his life.
“The son always thought of his father as a bit of a braggart, but he comes to realize he really was inspirational to everyone through his stories and his imagination,” Smith said.
When the lights come up, we’re left with a universal theme on the power of storytelling.
“Because his father was such a grand storyteller, he wound up inspiring his son in ways he didn’t even know he was doing,” Todd said. “His son wound up living this wild life: Will is a reporter, he meets his wife in Baghdad, he lives in New York City, he lives this very exciting, colorful life that his father, who was a traveling salesman in Alabama, never got to do.”
Audiences will go on an equally colorful journey, which is the exact reason that theater exists.
“You get to see how these stories touched people’s lives,” Smith said. “That’s why we do theater. I mean, applause is good, but it’s to talk to people afterward and start conversations and affect lives. That, I think, we see in this show so well, how his storytelling affected lives.”
Click here for more details on “Big Fish.” Listen to our full chat with the cast and creators below: