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Arts Eclectic turns the spotlight on happenings in the arts and culture scene in and around the Austin area. Through interviews with local musicians, dancers, singers, and artists, Arts Eclectic aims to bring locals to the forefront and highlight community cultural events.Support for Arts Eclectic comes from Broadway Bank.

'So beautiful and theatrical': Austin Playhouse presents a new version of the musical 'Big Fish'

Pictured: Connor Barr (blue shirt) and Andrew Cannata (white shirt)
Austin Playhouse
Pictured: Connor Barr (blue shirt) and Andrew Cannata (white shirt)

Big Fish began life as a 1998 novel by author Daniel Wallace. Five years later, it was the basis of a Tim Burton movie. Then, ten years after that, came a lavish Broadway musical based on both the novel and the movie.

“And it had a pretty short run on Broadway,” says director Lara Toner-Haddock. “And then a couple of years ago, the original creators got together and said, ‘what if we scaled it down?’ And they created this more intimate version.”

It’s that more recent and more intimate version of the musical that Toner-Haddock is now directing at Austin Playhouse. “So instead of huge song and dance numbers and a Wild West scene,” she says, “and there were ninjas in that Broadway show. We have 100% fewer ninjas in this version. There are now just 12 actors, this [smaller] ensemble bringing the whole story to life and I think it works so well this way.”

All iterations of the Big Fish story have included wild tall tales and magical realism, but the core of the story has always been about a father and son.

“At the heart of the story is this man Edward who tells these larger than life… big fish tales to his son,” Toner-Haddock explains. “And the father-son relationship that we see in the present day is now pretty strained. His son Will is getting married, going to have a child of his own. And Will really wants to connect with his father in a way that that was never possible because he could never really get through these fantastical tales that Edward told.”

Those tales are brought to life onstage by the 12-person ensemble, who move from role to role in both the present-day scenes and the more fantastical sequences. “And I think there's something so beautiful and theatrical about creating that transformation in front of the audience on stage instead of saying we have 50 people to do this,” Toner-Haddock says. “So you watch someone be a cheerleader and then a witch and then the doctor delivering news about the new baby. And it's really been a fun experience to approach this particular show.”

“I think it's more relatable as the intimate story,” says Andrew Cannata, who plays Edward Bloom, the storytelling father in Big Fish, “because we all tell stories, right? We all hope that our lives are bigger than maybe they really are.”

“And I feel like it focuses in on the father-son relationship a little more than maybe the bigger Broadway production originally did,” agrees Connor Barr, the actor playing son Will Bloom. “I think that just honing in on Will's relationship with Edward and how he interprets the stories that he's being told as he's growing up, and finding the reason for those stories being told, I think it presents itself better in this version of the script.”

Barr, Cannata, and Toner-Haddock all say that working on Big Fish has been an emotional experience. “There are a lot of touching moments and it is a very emotional show,” Cannata says. “But if it was all emotional, I don't think people could relate to it. And so they have woven the humor into pretty much every scene – even if it's going to be an emotional scene throughout – to help the audience… relate to it because, I mean, life is full of lots of funny things.”

“There's something so universal about these relationships that it explores,” Toner-Haddock says. “Not just the father-son relationships, but spouses going through the birth of a new child, going through the death of a parent. What I think this musical does so well is kind of open up that human experience and it's why it it lands so well with people.”

'Big Fish' runs June 2 - July 2 at Austin Playhouse.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces and hosts This Is My Thing and Arts Eclectic, and also produces Get Involved and the Sonic ID project. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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