When it comes to Broadway shows, Big Fish might’ve been the one that got away. Though it was tuneful, colorful and imaginative and garnered mostly positive reviews when it opened in the fall of 2013, it only had a three-month run. But according to Jeremy Brownstein, a junior who will be taking on the lead part of Edward Bloom in the upcoming New Paltz High School (NPHS) production of Big Fish, that early closing was “a blessing, because that meant we can do it” since the performance rights have been released.
Usually the NPHS Drama Club’s annual spring musical is something well-known; the last three years have seen productions of Cinderella, Grease and Seussical. But veterans of the Cinderella cast were looking for something a little edgier than Rodgers & Hammerstein this time around, explains club director Nancy Owen. “They seem really excited about this play because it’s new,” she says. “They’re a pretty motivated group.”
This can-do spirit is a welcome change from last year’s star-crossed production, which was marred by lack of enthusiasm on the part of some cast members, last-minute academic probation barring extracurricular activities for others and the death of Owen’s sister during the heaviest week of rehearsals. But Big Fish, she says, “has such spirit, and I think that spirit has enveloped the cast.”
Still, the fact that this is not a familiar stagework is causing Owen a little trepidation over turnout when the show is presented from March 19 to 21. The spring musical typically packs the high school auditorium, and it helps that there are a grand total of 56 students in the cast and another 18 backstage crew, all of whose families are likely to turn out. But the director of the production is still somewhat worried that Big Fish will not be catnip to audiences the way a more familiar musical would be.
Students in the lead roles in this year’s play seem much more confident. Senior Jenny Rich, who had the title role in Cinderella last year and is now rehearsing the part of Edward’s wife Sandra, calls Big Fish “really special…Nancy really trusted the story to bring people in, even though it doesn’t have the same name recognition as Cinderella or Grease.” Zynab Makki, another senior and Drama Club veteran who will be portraying Edward and Sandra’s daughter-in-law Josephine, shares Rich’s enthusiasm for the material: “I have a really strong feeling that if it’s performed in a lot of other places, it’ll become a classic. It’s kind of cool to be doing something that not a lot of people have done…. If we spread the word, I think a lot of people will fall in love with it like we have.”
Based on a 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and a 2003 Tim Burton film, Big Fish the musical takes place in Alabama in the 20th century and revolves around the relationship between an overimaginative man with cancer and a penchant for tall tales and his more practical-minded, somewhat estranged grown son who wants to understand his father better before he dies. Edward, the father, is the titular “big fish in a small pond,” says Makki. Will, the son, is “trying to find out what is true and what isn’t in the stories that he’s been told.”
“The son is very serious, goes straight to business,” says senior Stefan Shepko, who is playing the adult Will. As Edward tries to explain himself through exaggeration, metaphor and downright “absurd” fantasies involving the likes of giants, witches, mermaids, circus performers and soldiers, the narrative is structured with flashback scenes, some of which involve Will as a ten-year-old boy. “You’ve gotta learn to dream big, or you’re never gonna have a big life,” Edward instructs his son early in the play.
The role of the younger Will, “who’s more mature than [Edward] is,” is being filled by freshman Caleb Sheedy, who has plenty of youth theater experience under his belt via 90 Miles Off Broadway in New Paltz, Golden Stone Productions in Stone Ridge and From Stage to Screen in Highland. In addition, Sheedy plays two ensemble roles, requiring him to make very quick costume changes in between scenes.
Though he’s familiar to NPHS audiences for such roles as Kenickie in Grease, Edward is Brownstein’s first top-billing part — a “dream role” that he describes as “gigantic,” “exciting” and “intimidating.” Edward is “not perfect, but he’s funny and he’s got heart,” says the young actor.
Rich says that Big Fish is “lighthearted and fun, but it also has poignant moments mixed in with it.” Owen concurs: “You hear one song and just want to cry; the next they’re stomping their feet.” She notes that this show, with its seven full-cast production numbers, is particularly well-suited for the “really talented group of singers and dancers” who form the ensemble. “Even at the auditions they came prepared.”
Andrew Lippa wrote the music and lyrics for Big Fish, with a book by John August based on his screenplay for the (non-musical) movie version. Karyn Morehouse is the assistant director for the NPHS production, Nicole Foti is the musical director and Kate Weston is the choreographer. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 19 through 21. Tickets cost $12 general admission, $10 for students and seniors at the door. A special 2 p.m. matinée on Saturday offers tickets for $8 to all.