REVIEW – BIG FISH – PALO ALTO PLAYERS

I am the president (self-appointed as is the norm with many of my titles) of the Whimsy Fan Club. I strongly believe in the magic of stories told largely and from deep within an infinite imagination. I embrace the fanciful, magnificent, adventures that are unlocked when you dream big and commit to reveling in the possibility instead of dwelling in the limits of plausibility. Big Fish, now playing at Palo Alto Players is a show that whole-heartedly embodies this larger-than-life, mythical philosophy. It is humorous, poignant, healing and the messages of this show are so very needed in the world today.

There’s a lot of really wonderful, fun, touching and extremely well done stagecraft in this production and I have to give extreme, fuzzy kudos to the teams that worked to bring the visual pieces together. The costuming, props, set, projections, crew and illusions tell a big, bright story of their own. This was a collective effort that served up eye-candy galore and elicited genuine gasps, laughs, smiles and show stopping applause throughout. The technical result is commendable and for me by far the highlight of the evening. Palo Alto Players is fast becoming my favorite theater for creative, well-executed technical wizardry in an intimate space as they continue to raise the bar in this area with just about every show they do.

As for the show itself, I’m not sure I could surrender to it fully as much as I really wanted to. Something tells me no production could live up to the film, which if you haven’t seen, is worth a viewing too. Where the visuals were charming and full of life, I felt the music and way the story played on stage was conversely unremarkable. The words and music seemed to drag each other down instead of elevate and enhance each other. Music and lyrics served each other and the rest of the show inconsistently. There seemed an odd disconnect with the way it was written and the addition of some pitchy notes coming from some of the actors and the orchestra compounded that structural discord. In many cases I felt that the words were “better” than the music (this should just be a really compelling monologue) or the music “better” than the words (why can’t this just be told using the visuals and music, do we really need the text here?)  It had me thinking about my most riveting college professors and how they could capture an entire class for 45 minutes during a single, brilliant lecture and how a cello solo can confide the saddest of secrets in a language only audible to your soul.  I wanted the marriage between prose and music in this show to somehow invent a new language and whisper and shout simultaneously, but there wasn’t for me a single hummable, memorable musical moment either in the way it was conceived or the way it was performed.

The talent was varied, all the way from genuinely good to “well that was interesting.” There was some sweet chemistry on stage to be sure (particularly between Sandra and Edward Bloom and Edward and Young Will) and the audience was in unanimous consensus that if they could fit Karl the Giant in their pocket, they would engage in the most epic of RoShamBo battles to see who got to take him home but, unfortunately I think some of the demands of the singing were too much for some of the cast and for me that interrupted some really fine acting. In this case I think the show would have been exponentially better were it not for the songs that forced prose into meter and rhyme when their own cadence (and the talent delivering them) could have carried the heart of an original tale on their own much more powerfully.

This show is yet another fine example of Palo Alto Players commitment to increasingly more ambitious pieces and while I thought the effort was really admirable and there were certainly sparks of magic in places, overall this piece may have been conceptually TOO big for any stage as a whole. A worthy effort on the part of a dedicated and committed cast, Big Fish reels in 3 ½ out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a tender love story wrapped vividly in a visual victory. Big Fish plays through September 28th at the Lucie Stern Community Theater in Palo Alto.

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