Palm Beach County has lost one of its key producing troupes, as Slow Burn Theatre Company moves its operation to the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater. But from the selection of Big Fish as its initial offering there, and from the skilled rendering of the problematic material, the five-year-old group demonstrates that it is more than ready to leave its high school auditorium roots for a bigger, more professional pond.
The show was a quick casualty of the 2013-14 season on Broadway. Although it had its boosters, the New York reviews were mostly downbeat, with a consensus that director-choreographer Susan Stroman drowned the simple, affecting story in production values. Still, musicals of substance that failed to meet Broadway expectations are Slow Burn’s raison d’etre, as artistic director Patrick Fitzwater again shows, mining the story with heart-on-sleeve sentiment and modest-budget extravagance.
Based on a 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and popularized in a fanciful, quirky Tim Burton film five years later, Big Fish is probably not to everyone’s taste. Its strength is in the father-son reconciliation plot, as Will Bloom — a stick-to-the-facts reporter — returns to his Alabama childhood home and to his infuriating, tall tale-spinning dad, Edward, who is dying of cancer. That doesn’t sound much like fodder for a musical, but the show — like the movie — keeps seguing into Edward’s preposterous, colorful stories from his alleged past, yarns of future-savvy witches, towering giants, circus folk, mermaids and flying fish, all of which shape his personal narrative.
Such stories and Edward’s need to be the center of attention while telling them has always mortified Will. Now, as Will prepares to marry the comely Josephine, all he wants is not to be embarrassed by his father at the wedding and, perhaps, to reconcile Edward’s yarns with the truth.
The plot has other meandering turns to it, which John August relates in musical theater shorthand, an abbreviated version of his screenplay. Characters are merely sketched in and many remain underwritten and two-dimensional. But the strength of the show — like the film — is the relationship between Edward and Will, fleshed in ably here by Shane Tanner and newcomer Justen Fox-Hall.
Tanner is a fixture of South Florida theater, but he rarely has the leading role. Here he takes on the acting challenge of the largely unlikeable Edward, both as a young man and a dying geezer, and makes him someone deserving of our empathy. Fox-Hall makes a strong impression as his son, handling well some of composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa’s more emotion-laden songs like the first-act finale, “Daffodils,” and, echoing his father’s philosophy, “Be the Hero.”
They are just two in a sizeable cast of 20, as Fitzwater bring back Slow Burn veterans and widens his acting pool with several fresh faces. Ann Marie Olson (Carbonell Award winner for Parade) brings her forceful singing voice to the role of Edward’s life mate, Sandra, and Anjane Girwarr is a lovely presence in the flimsy role of Josephine. Christopher Mitchell looms over the production as gentle giant Karl and company executive director Matthew Korinko is a firm anchor to the ensemble as circus ringmaster Amos Calloway.
The Broward Center has upgraded the sound equipment in the Amaturo for Slow Burn, juts one reason that Emmanuel Schvartzman’s pit orchestra comes across so crisply. Scenic designer Sean McClelland has followed the company to its new home, contributing another cleverly conceived set, complemented by attractive projections by Broadway Motion Design.
Chances are Big Fish — the musical — will be new to most of Slow Burn’s audience, but it is a journey well worth taking. And if all goes well, Slow Burn will add new theatergoers willing to follow it out on its creative limbs and become its deserved fans.
BIG FISH, Slow Burn Theatre at the Broward Center Amaturo Theater, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale, through Sunday, Nov. 8. $45. (954) 462-0222.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: They call it “musical comedy,” but too few musicals are genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum certainly is, a vaudevillian synthesis of the plots and themes of Plautus, the Roman playwright who laid them in the aisles back in the 2nd century B.C.
Only some of what master jokesmiths Larry Gelbart (City of Angels, Sly Fox) and Burt Shevelove (The Frogs) added in gets heard at The Wick Theatre, though, for Broadway’s Ken Jennings is ad-libbing with abandon as Pseudolus, the conniving slave who yearns for his freedom. In those rare occasions when Jennings sticks to the written text, more often than not his lines are drowned out by the laughter over the previous joke.
Jennings’ improvisations are fitting, for Pseudolus too is making stuff up as he goes along, inventing ploys to obtain empty-headed, virginal courtesan Philia (Whitney Winfield) for his master, young, callow Hero (Chris Brand), son of henpecked Senex (Michael Scott) and his battleax wife, Domina (Erika Amato). That is all you need to know to enjoy the show, which zigs and zags throughout the evening, when it is not flat-out sprinting.
Although speed is essential in a farce, Forum risks slowing down for the insertion of musical numbers. Of course it helps that the score is by a young Stephen Sondheim, flexing his muscles with unexpected chord progressions and lyrical wit. From the opening, “Comedy Tonight” — the third number in that slot, as the show was salvaged on the pre-Broadway road — to the triphammer tongue-twister of love (“Pretty Little Picture”) to the leering, multi-verse salute to womanhood (“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”), it is Sondheim at his most playful.
Unfortunately, The Wick continues to use pre-recorded tracks for its musical accompaniment. That is disappointing enough in more conventional shows, but here the canned music necessarily gets in the way of the spontaneity on which Forum thrives.
By two weeks into the run, Jennings seemed comfortable with the recorded timing to embellish with abandon, notably tossing out references to other shows, such as The Lion King and Sweeney Todd. (In 1979, he made his Broadway debut in the latter, playing pie shop assistant Tobias in the original cast.) Although slighter of stature than most Pseudoluses (Pseudoli?), Jennings has a booming singing voice that is a real asset to the production.
Michael Ursua steps away from his resident musical director duties to have fun playing nervous, agitated head slave Hysterium. A gaggle of scantily clad women go through choreographer Angela Morando-Taylor’s contortionist moves as the courtesans for hire and Troy J. Stanley earns giggles each time he walks across the stage as aged Erronius, search for his offspring long ago abducted by pirates.
Bob Walton, a survivor of a Forum tour with Mickey Rooney, directs this Wick production with a knowing hand and controlled friskiness. Bruce Walters injects some visual humor into the standard three-house scenic design and the Wick’s costume warehouse gets a workout with this faux-Roman wardrobe.
I suppose you could actually become emotionally involved with Hero and Philia’s yearning for happiness together, but that’s not really the point of the show. It is about comedy and the more anachronistic the better. By that measure, The Wick has a winner to kick off its third season.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sunday. $70-80. 561-995-2333.
Picnic: We knew that Palm Beach Dramaworks was drawn to Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and now it seems it is also attracted to plays about studly strangers who mosey into town and disrupt the status quo. That describes the company’s current production, Picnic — a Pulitzer winner from 1953 — which has much in common with 110 in the Shade, the musical tale of such a drifter, which the West Palm Beach troupe presented in concert this summer.
Stories of these strangers and the changed lives they leave in their wake are dramatic archetypes that verge on clichés. But playwright William Inge has such evident affection for the residents of the small Kansas town in which he sets Picnic and director William Hayes and his cast bring them to life with such unaffected honesty that we are drawn into their situations even as we recognize how quaint and dated the play now feels.
Labor Day is imminent and with it comes the town’s holiday picnic, a predictable event marking the end of the summer. But this year’s picnic will be different, due to the arrival of Hal Carter (Merlin Huff), a healthy specimen who gains the attention of all the womenfolk, with or without his shirt on.
Most of them, like neighborly Helen Potts (Elizabeth Dimon), are satisfied just looking, but Madge Owens (Kelly Gibson), a golden-haired beauty stuck in a going-nowhere relationship with safe, but boring Alan Seymour (Taylor Miller), is drawn to Hal like the proverbial moth to a flame. He represents desired danger to her and perhaps a way out of this unexciting town.
The Hal-Madge coupling is at the center of Picnic, but playwright Inge – himself a product of Kansas — paints in many other supporting characters, each in varying degrees yearning for something more than their current circumstance. There is Madge’s plain-jane younger sister Millie (Maren Searle), a late bloomer stuck in the shadow of the more attractive Madge, and their single mother, Flo (Patti Gardner), who has her hands full trying to bring up her daughters.
Director Hayes gives each character some attention, but in particular focus thanks to a wistful performance by Margery Lowe is spinster school teacher Rosemary Sydney, who rents a room in Flo’s house. She too is in an inert relationship with a decent, but emotionally distant man (Michael McKeever) and her expression of unfulfillment is palpable.
Dramaworks continues to lavish great care and visual style on its production’s design elements. Returning scenic artist Michael Amico outdoes himself with his backyard view of smalltown life, exquisitely lit by Donald Edmund Thomas. And resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe shows how to infuse the tale with character detail through everyday wardrobe.
Picnic makes no grand statement of the human condition; there is no message with a capital “M.” But in its simple observations of Midwest life, it is hard not to find someone to identify with, even if Kansas is merely a place to fly over.
PICNIC, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Nov. 8. $64. 561-514-4042.