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Friday, April 12, 2024
The Observer

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PEMCo ain't no ‘Big Fish’ in a small pond

Picture a fisherman, arms spread wide, talking about “the big catch” he still remembers. Each time he tells the story, his arms slowly get further apart, and inch by inch, year by year, the fish gets bigger and bigger. The factual truth becomes more and more distorted to preserve a different one — the emotional truth.

Pasquerilla East Musical Company’s (PEMCo) production of “Big Fish” is a story about this kind of man, a man who tends to exaggerate and bend the truth. Whether you want to call him a storyteller or a liar is your prerogative — and that's the main point of the musical. 

First, let's set the scene. In the fictional twentieth mid-century American village of Ashton, Alabama, nestled in a valley somewhere, suffocated by kudzu vines and fog and the limiting beliefs of one’s small-town neighbors, a boy is promised that he has the power to make his life extraordinary.

Enter Edward Bloom (Benjamin Sollom), the boy all grown-up. You get a sense that Edward Bloom looks at his life in the definitive and confident way you only can when you are looking backwards. A passionate story-teller with a penchant for nostalgia, Edward lives his life in a fictionalized past. He befriends giants, travels the world, gets both conscripted to the military and the girl of his dreams, saves a town, fights dragons, etc. At least, this is what he says happened. Only about half of these things are true. 

Edward’s son, Will (Carlos Macias), who grew up on a steady stream of his father’s tall tales as bedtime stories, wants something different, something real: to finally separate fact from fiction and to learn more about the man behind all the myths. 

But after a falling out with his father, will he stay firm in his belief that his father’s larger-than-life persona leans narcissistic, or will he make peace with the ways his father cannot change?

This father-son relationship is a compelling narrative that I think many of us can relate to as we reach young adulthood and reckon with our parents’ imperfections. But as much as “Big Fish” is a balance between the two men (“Two Men in My Life”), it’s also a fight between two ideologies: a journalist’s dedication to the factual truth and a storyteller’s dedication to crafting emotional ones. 

Another key relationship in the musical is between Edward and his wife Sandra (Evelyn Berry) and the huge over-the-top romance they’ve kept alive throughout their long marriage. “Time Stops” and “Daffodils” are some of my favorite songs from the musical, and while it’s impossible to capture the magic of the same scenes in Tim Burton’s film adaptation, this production still managed to give me chills. With yellow petals falling onto the stage at the finale of Act I, you can’t help but be reminded of all the clumsy but whole-hearted ways we try to love one another.

To single out some songs, there are several well-executed dance numbers involving all the cast members including the “Alabama Stomp” in the opening number (featuring rhythmic choreography and flying fish) and an All-American big band jazz type tap affair in “Red, White and True.” 

Mary Rozembajgier shines as a surprisingly sassy Karl the Giant who towers over Edward Bloom by a comedic couple of inches. Bryce Bustamante also garners some laughs as circus ringmaster Amos Calloway, a man hiding a surprising secret. (Think of an evil version of Hugh Jackman in “The Greatest Showman.”)

But besides the larger-than-life production and overtly magical world PEMCo has created for this weekend's audience, “Big Fish” ultimately explores things that are very much grounded in reality. The narratives we tell ourselves can empower or limit us — and we have the agency to choose which story to keep telling. 

Luckily, in this review, I don’t have to sacrifice any factual truths for the sake of any emotional ones. There’s no need for me to embellish either. My feelings on PEMCo's “Big Fish” are simple. I have no desire to remember it as something bigger than it was. It was just good enough as it is, and I'm going back to see it on Saturday.

PEMCo’s production of “Big Fish” is running from Apr. 4-6 at Washington Hall's main stage. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the LaFortune Box Office for $7 for students and $10 for the general public.