Adam Nardini deserves credit for making Countryside Community Theatre's Big Fish so endearing. Playing the father at the center of composer Andrew Lippa's and playwright John August's story - one based on the novel and Tim Burton film of the same name, the latter of which found Albert Finney playing Nardini's Edward Bloom - the performer is in excellent voice and remarkably engaging as this teller of tall tales. While he doesn't adjust his performance to accommodate age differences while traveling from high school to early fatherhood to late-life, Nardini is still one of the best things that Countryside's piece has going for it.
Directed and choreographed by Christina Marie Myatt, the stage version of Big Fish focuses heavily on its father-son relationship, diminishing the magic of the father's stories as visualized in the film. Scenic designer Tom Goodall falls in line with this change in focus by employing a minimalist set that's little more than a river (positioned, in the North Scott High School Fine Arts Auditorium, in the orchestra pit where live musicians would usually perform) and a white backdrop that's sometimes covered by a scrim for scene changes. Yet while I missed the enchantment made possible by the artistry of film, there's also something charming about the more moderate approach taken by Goodall and Myatt.
Imagination is the key to thoroughly enjoying this musical, given the lack of visuals that might've punctuated its story of Edward's son Will (Peter Fourneia) attempting to differentiate fantasy from truth in his father's recollections. I must say, however, that I did enjoy the way Myatt and Goodall make use of the orchestra pit - throwing fish from out of it, using the space to blossom daffodils as Edward attempts to charm Shelley LaMar's Sandra, and revealing Molly Seybert's beautiful mermaid from within its depths. While there's no frozen-in-midair popcorn, nor a fully realized circus, as in the film - although there are amusing, dancing-elephant backsides - there's still something beautiful to behold here, even if this musical is more heavily supportive of its family-relationship tale than physical magic.
There's also Myatt's choreography for the "I Know What You Want" scene, in which the high-school Edward and his friends approach a coven of witches to receive their fortunes. Myatt seems to have choreographed this remarkable number in accordance with designer Emilee Droegmiller's witch costumes, which include capes with sticks that allow the actors to extend their arms in ways that mimic bat wings. The collaborative effect between Myatt's and Droegmiller's contributions is haunting.
Still, Countryside's production isn't perfect. Peter Fourneia's Will Bloom seemed stiff during Saturday's performance, and the setting on his microphone that made his vocals sound over-modulated didn't help matters. The show's two-and-a-half-hour run-time - which is actually the fault of August's and Lippa's - is also is a bit taxing. And while I blubber every single time I watch the film version, I wasn't nearly as emotional at the musical ... although when Will discovers the truth behind his father's stories, I was moved enough for the waterworks to flow. (Granted, my familiarity with the movie, and my recalling the emotion of it, may have helped inspire those tears.)
As a fan of the film, it's hard to completely recommend Countryside's Big Fish. But in the end, I don't think it's a production to pass over, given that the staging possesses just enough true emotion, and it has the benefit of Nardini in the lead.
Big Fish runs at the North Scott High School Fine Arts Auditorium (200 South First Street, Eldridge) through July 19, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)285-6228 or visiting CCTOnStage.org.