Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 screen adaptation (screenplay by John August), Big Fish is a beguiling if paradoxical musical (book by August, songs by Andrew Lippa), at once larger than life and smaller, the kind of show that features a protagonist who loves to talk big, embellishing his autobiography with tales of giants and witches and werewolves, but still finds time to move us with quieter drama of everyday life. The show feels tailor-made for an intimate space like the Greenhouse, where the production’s five-piece orchestra is right at the center of the stage and the actors are so close you could touch them.
Lippa and August, of course, meant the show to play in larger venues. It was first produced at the Oriental Theatre (now the James M. Nederlander Theatre) in Chicago in 2013, but the ultimate goal was always Broadway, where it moved later that year—and received decidedly mixed reviews. It closed after only 98 performances and received no Tony nominations.
Broadway’s loss. As BoHo’s current revival proves, this can be a powerful, fascinating show. It helps that the production, under the direction of Stephen Schellhardt and music direction of Michael McBride, is perfectly paced. And that Schellhardt’s cast is a true, tight ensemble; everyone has everyone else’s back, and as a result everyone shines—and the story unfolds with a grace that kees the audience riveted. Maybe Big Fish was always meant to flourish in a small pond. There is no shame in that. The Chicago theater movement was originally founded on the idea of many small (storefront) ponds, in which fish of many sizes thrive. v