Book: John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace
Music and Lyrics: Andrew Lippa
Director: Nigel Harman
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
For many musicals, going a full fifteen minutes without any songs can seem like a drag; at the top of the show, it can seem like the kiss of death. Yet for Big Fish, The Other Palace’s latest premiere, its song-free start only serves to enhance the family relationships at the heart of Andrew Lippa’s musical.
The headline performer of this London version of the 2013 Broadway musical is US TV and stage star Kelsey Grammer. By opening as if part of a straight play, John August’s book allows Grammer to really sell the character of Edward Bloom, a man whose grand gestures of storytelling threaten to overshadow the marriage of his son, Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) to Josephine (Frances McNamee).
But then fate intervenes, and the wedding gets overshadowed by Edward collapsing of a stroke. And as he is treated in hospital, the stories he told of his early days come to life before our eyes, intermingling with his family as they come to terms with their patriarch’s mortality.
That this is a story of father and son estrangement and bonding perhaps explain why Clare Burt’s mother, Sandra, remains one of the few characters who feels underdeveloped; August and composer Andrew Lippa are concerned more with Edward and Will, along with the younger Edward’s relationships with cave-dwelling giant Karl (Dean Nolan) and Forbes Masson’s circus master Amos, than with the women of the piece.
But while the men are rather better drawn than the women, the romance and pursuit of love are such strong themes here that such gender disparity becomes easy to forgive. A huge part of that romance is down to Jamie Muscato as Grammer’s younger alter ego. As Edward zips from story to fantastical story – projected as a human cannonball across huge distances, or throwing himself of a poison dart and changing the course of the war – Muscato’s effortless charms sell Edward’s cheery way of mixing fact and fiction.
Lippa’s songs include the bright and breezy, most notably the WW2 close harmony pastiche Red, White and True which opens Act II. But the greatest musical achievements, of many, here are the song’s big romantic ballads, from Time Stops as Edward and Sandra meet for the first time to Daffodils, as they mark their love with bouquets, and eventually fields, of the blooms.
Big Fish’s score, one of the best to emerge from Broadway in the last several years, is complemented with some occasionally astonishing choreography by Liam Steel. A circus sequence with Muscato leaping through hula hoops is a particular highlight, beautifully executed by all concerned. Further complementing the show’s romanticism, Tom Rogers’s set design incorporates projections that genuinely illuminate the storytelling.
With comic supporting turns from Masson and Nolan in particular, there is plenty to laugh at within Big Fish. But the overriding emotion is one of heart-wrenching devotion to one’s parents; of the power of mythic fairytales; of finding heroism where one least expects it.
Since its relaunch as a home for new musical theatre, The Other Palace’s headline shows have not always lived up to the venue’s promise. That’s important because the commercial success of the big auditorium’s shows help fund all the development of new works in which the venue is investing. With Big Fish, The Other Palace may just have found that perfect combination of commercial success and technically superb work. One would certainly be hard-pressed to find a more emotional, more satisfying work on the London stage right now.
Runs until 31 December 2017 | Image: Tristram Kenton