Community Theatre Review: BIG FISH at Upper Darby Summer Stage

“We’ve got magic up on sleeve, here at Summer Stage!”

The magic of Upper Darby Summer Stage lies in the young adults who embark on the program. The main stage program consists of professional technicians, designers, musicians, choreographers, and directors mixed with actors (ages 16-28) who pay membership to participate which also makes this company a tough one to label.  Perhaps we can call it professional grade community theatre for rising stars? Having participated in the program myself for a dozen years I think that sums it up nicely.

I had the great privilege to attend the final preview of Big Fish at Upper Darby Summer Stage which is set to open tomorrow night at Upper Darby Performing Arts Center.  Walking into this facility always brings back such nostalgic moments from my childhood.  From a teen actor to a young professional director/stage manager, I had the good fortune to cross paths with hundreds of artists beaming with pride and potential every year.  Last night was no different, as I was full of pride for Brian Walsh, the director of Big Fish.

You see, I met a young Brian when he was a student of the program and I his teacher.  He was the same age I was when I started Summer Stage, 15.  What some of you reading this may believe, Brian used to be quiet! He was an observer.  He was a prime student of the industry.  Always volunteering his time, asking questions, and just wanting to be “in the room where it happens.” I would bet that it was during these years that Brian learned to love theatre and has since always valued being a part of an ensemble.

Why is this “critic” talking so much about Brian and not at all about the show she attended? It’s easy, he’s one of my very best friends for nearly 20 years!  I wouldn’t normally review any show for a director that I am so personal with. This time, just this time, it’s different. And heck, it’s a blog, we don’t have to follow the AP rules!

Big Fish, written by John August with Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa, tells the story of Edward Bloom, a husband and father who works tirelessly to provide for his family but has one wild imagination and his son Will, who so desperately wants to understand his father before he becomes a father himself.  Everyone is Edward’s life, including his wife Sandra, falls hook, line, and sinker for all his stories: mermaids, a mystical coven, circus acts, wild fishing excursions, philanthropic endeavors, among many others.   Except Will.  Young Will sees through the smoke and mirrors.

Chris Monaco as Edward Bloom and Sarah DeNight as Sandra Bloom

Chris Monaco plays Bloom through several decades of his life. Although not listed in his bio, I just recently saw him perform this same role earlier this year at another outlet.  I suspect this will be a role that he will be playing many years to come as he truly ages into it.  Bloom’s wife Sandra is adoringly played by triple-threat Sarah DeNight.  She sings, she acts, she TAPS! Chris Murphy Smith makes his mainstage debut as Will as does Mikey Geddes who plays Young Will.  Both played the innocence and eagerness of Will’s desire to learn more about his father with grace.

Rachel Medori as the witch and Chris Monaco as Edward Bloom

Although the Bloom character is the big fish in a small pond of a musical, it’s the pond that you want to sink into. Director Brian Walsh and Choreographer Devon Sinclair created a world where each member of the ensemble had value including by not limited to Rachel Medori’s killer pipes as the Witch, Malik Muhammad’s comedic chops as Amos Calloway, John Fioravanti’s humdrum take on Karl the Giant while on stilts, and the creepy Coven featuring Gabrielle Impriano, Claire Gower, Alison Liney, Maddie Snell, Danny Walsh, and Bryant Carter.

As with all Upper Darby Summer Stage productions, they knock it out of the park in technology and spectacle. The mapped-out costume design by Kayla Speedy matched tonality of color by each walk of life were exquisite. Gina Giachero, Musical Director AND Conductor delivers the goods with a gifted and skilled orchestra. Patrick Ahearn’s properties were detailed and nuanced, but I did wish there was more set dressing at times to help balance out the enormity of the set design by Martin Dellago. As this was the final dress, some of the lighting (Charles Reece, designer) was a bit out of place, however it’s clear the attention is there and will be a sure fire hit on opening night. The most jaw-dropping element to this production of Big Fish was the Projection Design by Tristan Horan. This is not your typical, “hang a white curtain and throw a couple pictures up on the screen” kind of projection.  This is innovative, astounding, and down right magical. I would bet that more hours of work went into these projections than the time it took to rehearse this large musical.  Shout out to the stage management team led by Danielle Agan for beautiful execution.

The story of Big Fish is an escape from the traditional programming at Summer Stage and excavates feelings for those that have lived life as well as lost life.  Bring your tissues because you will need them! As I sit here putting the final touches on this review, I grabbed my own tissue: Brian Walsh, you are a Big Fish!

 

Big Fish runs this weekend and next.  For tickets visit udpac.org.

 

Side note: Take a listen to Theatre with a Tea podcast for an interview between Anne Marie Scalies and Big Fish Musical Director Gina Giachero.

 

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