Performing Arts

Slow Burn makes a splash with ‘Big Fish’ at the Broward Center

Shane Tanner and Ann Marie Olson share a tender moment at life’s end in ‘Big Fish.’
Shane Tanner and Ann Marie Olson share a tender moment at life’s end in ‘Big Fish.’ Gemma Bramham

A new era has begun in the Broward Center’s renovated Amaturo Theater, where the award-winning Slow Burn Theatre has just opened the first South Florida production of the Broadway musical Big Fish.

The show’s tagline — “Dream Bigger” — captures the musical’s essence, but the idea applies to Slow Burn itself. A five-year-old company that began its life in a high school’s nicely appointed theater is now creating its work in Fort Lauderdale’s showplace performing arts center. There’s a dream come true.

Betting on Slow Burn, which has already produced 23 musicals in its short history, is a smart move for the Broward Center. Director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater, who founded the company with partner Matthew Korinko, has demonstrated his mastery of a wide range of musicals, from the challenging (several by Stephen Sondheim) to the merely entertaining. And he has demonstrated that he can breathe new life into musicals like Side Show — and now Big Fish — that didn’t last long on Broadway.

Based on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and the 2003 Tim Burton movie, Big Fish has a score by composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family) and a book by John August, who wrote the screenplay for Burton’s film. Its central character is Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who trades in tall tales that fail to enchant his only child Will, a realist since boyhood.

Edward’s fantastic, imaginative stories are the entry point into lavish production numbers, including the Alabama Stomp sequence that sees fish leaping from a river into a fisherman’s basket, the whirling prognostication of The Witch and a confrontation with a giant in Out There on the Road.

But the themes embedded in August’s book are what will resonate with audiences: a father and son, men so different, coming to terms with each other; the power and empathy inherent in an enduring love; the fear and acceptance as a man reaches the end of his life.

Lippa’s score contains serviceable numbers and gems, but Slow Burn’s large cast performs all of them as if they were the latter. Musical director (and conductor-keyboard player) Emmanuel Schvartzman is one of six excellent musicians providing the vital give-and-take of live music from an orchestra pit that here doubles as the home of a mermaid (Emily Tarallo).

Two South Florida musical theater treasures, Shane Tanner and Ann Marie Olson, lead the cast as Edward Bloom and his wife Sandra.

Tanner’s task is almost Herculean. He’s rarely off stage, and he’s following in the footsteps of Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, who created the role. No problem here: Tanner is charismatic yet down to earth, vocally nuanced, persuasive as he explores the varied aspects of Edward’s character. He is terrific leading the cast in a big number like Be the Hero, and his duets with Olson on Time Stops and Daffodils are magical.

Olson journeys from Auburn co-ed (watch for the joke about that) to an older woman on the cusp of widowhood. She’s a magnetic performer with a beautiful voice, and her tender, gorgeous solo I Don’t Need a Roof becomes the show’s most moving number.

The leads are surrounded by talent both seasoned and young. Newcomer Justen Fox-Hall brings his powerful voice to the role of the frustrated, grown-up Will, a young man who gains insight into his maddening father when it’s nearly too late. Gabe Sklar brings the same dubious nature to Young Will. Ben Sandomir is a presence as Edward’s rival, Don Price, and Leah Marie Sessa is memorable as Edward’s first love, Jenny Hill.

Anjane Girwarr as Will’s bride Josephine, Christopher Mitchell as a savvy giant named Karl, Kendra Williams as the future-predicting Witch, Korinko as circus owner Amos Calloway and Geoffrey Short as the doctor and mayor are all quite fine when it’s their turn in the spotlight. Tarallo, who serves as dance captain and plays multiple roles, is a radiant presence who dances like a dream.

Visually and aurally, the Big Fish dreamscape is the work of set designer Sean McClelland, costume designer Rick Peña, lighting designer Preston Bircher, sound designer Richard Szczublewski, projection designers Broadway Motion Design, and wig designer Fitzwater. Yes, that Fitzwater, the man whose dream-big vision (along with Korinko’s) landed Slow Burn at the Broward Center and Big Fish on the Amaturo stage.

Despite some isolated technical glitches on opening night, Big Fish is an impressive addition to the offerings at the Broward Center. It’s a win-win for the center, for Slow Burn and for audiences who love musical theater.

If you go

What: ‘Big Fish’ by Andrew Lippa and John August.

Where: Slow Burn Theatre production in the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.

When:7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 8.

Cost: $45.

Information: 954-462-0222 or www.browardcenter.org.

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