The casting of Kelsey Grammer in Big Fish, a slight musical about tall tales, is quite a coup for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Other Palace. The star of Frasier is a huge draw for what is a fairly middling musical, adapted from Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel. While it makes for a light and pleasant Christmas show it never fulfils the fantasies that it promises.
Grammer plays Edward Bloom, an ebullient Alabaman patriarch who loves to tell outlandish stories to his now adult son, liberally borrowing from Homer, Joyce and others: like the time he defeated, and befriended, a gay giant named Karl, or saved an entire town from catastrophic flooding.
His son Will, played by Matthew Seadon-Young, doesn’t believe a word of the stories and, as Edward lies dying on a hospital bed, Will tries to separate truth from fact and find out about his father’s life before it’s too late.
The exuberant Grammer is a great match for the arch, uptightness of Seadon-Young and it’s a pleasure to listen to his strong, precise voice. Dean Nolan and Forbes Masson offer good comic support and Clare Burt is warm-hearted as Edward’s wife Sandra, although she is underused in what is a very male-dominated production.
While Tom Rogers’ hospital set is quite bland, and a bit wooden and wobbly, Nigel Harman’s direction brings a grinding tension between the fantasy worlds of Bloom’s stories and the serious things that life throws in the way – cancer, parenthood, death.
The make-believe is pasted over the reality, so that in and around the washed-out, peppermint green hospital room Bloom’s stories come to life. The production relies heavily on projected animations by Duncan McLean, some of which work, while others are a jarring contrast with the physical world on stage.
What Rogers’ costume design does well is to make the mythical creatures and worlds look like they’ve been thrown together by a child from stuff lying around the house: mop heads, tennis balls and the like.
Andrew Lippa’s music is as mixed as the rest of the production. At its best, we get bouncy vaudeville pastiche, augmented by fantastic choreography from Liam Steel, but more often it’s maximum schmaltz, songs that are barely more than functional, sentimentality-by-numbers.
In many ways this feels like Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home in it’s exploration of parent-child relationships and it’s sifting of the facts and fictions of memory, but it lacks that show’s delicacy of touch and wounding rawness.
Still, in Grammer and Seadon-Young we see the complexities of fathers and their sons laid bare, and together they create quite a moving climax. But if artistic director Paul Taylor Mills was hoping to land a whopper with this, instead he’s caught something of a sprat.