Big Fish
Through Sunday, Jul. 22
Kennedy Theatre, Raleigh

When James McMurtry sings, “Life and legend are an awkward pair,” we take it that the son of Old West novelist Larry McMurtry is voicing a truth that’s close to home. Playwright John August explores similar terrain in this prismatic musical stage adaptation of Big Fish, Chapel Hill author Daniel Wallace’s 1998 best-selling novel, which director Tim Burton made into a major motion picture in 2003. In it, wonky journalist Will Bloom (Chris Dwan) sifts through a lifetime of tall tales his dying father, Edward (an earnest Timothy Gulan) has told him about his life, desperately searching for the truth.

In the current Theatre Raleigh production, innovative director Eric Woodall gives Will’s quest added intimacy when he places it within the confines of designer Josh Smith’s attic set, a top-floor time capsule where artifacts—and evidence—from different decades sit side by side. There, Woodall and choreographer Abbey O’Brien conjure a magical world of memory and fabulation, as the cast constructs and animates set pieces, including an eye-popping human merry-go-round, using little more than modest props and imagination.

Unfortunately, there’s a downside or two. Despite Gulan and Dwan’s notable work, the plot is too condensed to fully flesh out the father/son conflict. And for a tale so deeply rooted in Alabama, composer Andrew Lippa’s optimistic but generic-sounding score clearly hasn’t spent much time south of Broadway and 42nd Street. Still, music director Ethan Anderson gives it the best reading possible, with a crisp six-piece band and sharp vocals from the cast.

The production abounds with vivid supporting work. Areon Mobasher’s enigmatic ringmaster, Amos; Paul Hinkes’s larger-than-life take on Karl the Giant; and Chanda Branch’s demanding Witch buttress more familial roles: Lauren Kennedy as Edward’s wife, Sandra; Shanelle Nicole Leonard as onetime girlfriend Jenny Hill; and Keegan Story’s scene-stealing Young Will. Imaginative staging and sentiment make this semi-Southern musical one from the heart. Recommended.