Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Big Fish
Grand Canyon University
Review by Gil Benbrook

Cameron Swindler, Sydney Meyers,
and Christian Shepherd

Photo by Ralph Freso
The whimsical, warm, and witty musical Big Fish only managed a brief Broadway run back in 2013 but it has become a staple of local theatre companies. It tells the story of a traveling salesman named Edward Bloom and the fantastical tall tales he'd often tell his son. With a charming score, a comical book, and heartwarming characters, it's easy to see why, even though it flopped on Broadway, it gets so frequently presented; there are two productions in town playing this week. Grand Canyon University is presenting a wonderful production of this wining show, with a talented cast and impressive creative elements.

The musical is based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the film by Tim Burton and follows Edward Bloom and his adult son Will over a series of years. The plot focuses on the events in their lives and the farfetched stories that Edward claims happened to him which Will constantly doubts are true. Through a series of flashbacks, we relive the key moments in Edward's past, including how he met Will's mother and how he had encounters with a mermaid, a giant, and a man who turned out to be a werewolf, often questioning, like Will, their factualness.

John August's book is imaginative and fun as it delves into Edward's past while also offering a mystery of sorts when it focuses on Will trying to find the facts among the fables in his father's stories. Andrew Lippa's score is a nice mix of comic numbers, introspective ballads, and soaring anthems, with rich lyrics that define the characters while also moving the plot along.

While the flashback fantasy-infused structure of the show does take a few minutes to adjust to, director Michael Kary does a great job to ensure there is clarity in the storytelling and his cast are all wonderful. Cameron Swindler is terrific as Edward, with a performance that is sweet and endearing. His vibrant and assured line delivery pulls you into the stories Edward tells, and his singing voice is warm and clear. He does a great job playing Edward at various ages in his life and you truly feel a deep connection to the character from his rich portrayal. Christian Shepherd does a fine job playing Will, the son who continually questions his father while occasionally being ashamed of him, the way he behaves, and the far-fetched stories he tells. Shepherd's singing voice is very strong, with a wonderful solo of "Stranger." Sydney Meyers does a beautiful job as the woman who constantly comes between these two men, Sandra Bloom, Edward's wife and Will's mother. Her performance is grounded in reality and she projects emotion and warmth in her line delivery and body language. Her solo of "I Don’t Need a Roof" is superb in its simplicity.

Vernon Ensor has the perfect blend of sweetness and skepticism as Young Will, and Kaitlyn Bearman is sweet and sincere as Will's wife, Josephine. In supporting roles, Bella Corsaro is very good as Jenny Hill, a woman in Edward's past; Nathan Rojas oozes charm as Karl the Giant; and Dalton Smith is great as Amos Calloway, the leader of a circus who, like Edward, also has some secrets. As the Witch that Edward meets when he is young, Madison Peters has a powerful voice. Cooper Townley and Brinn Vennendaal get some nice laughs as two kids Edward knew in school, and Nick Philips is sincere and warm as Dr. Bennett. The large ensemble all do great work playing multiple characters.

The creative aspects are colorful and bright, with William Symington's scenic design, Ivy Angle's props, and Autumn Ford's lighting delivering some impressive stage images. While there is a turntable used in various moments of the show, it is a bit noisy and proved to be somewhat problematic at the performance I attended. However, it does create some incredible moments, including the moment when Edward first meets Sandra. Nola Yergen's costumes are bright and character specific. Anna Mettes's choreography is fun and varied, and while I appreciate the additions of some modern dance elements in two solo songs, including "Strangers," it sometimes pulls focus from the characters singing them and the important meaning in their lyrics. Mark Feary's music direction delivers rich vocals from the cast and a lovely sound from the 13-piece orchestra, and the sound design by Daniella Brown has some nice effects while also ensuring the cast is heard fairly clear.

Big Fish may not have had a long run on Broadway, but it's great to see that its message about the importance of family and how everyone can be the hero of their own story has made it into a crowd-pleasing show that is frequently produced. With a great cast, solid direction, and ruch creative elements, GCU's production is emotionally rich, moving, funny, and full of heart.

Big Fish runs through April 2, 2023, at Grand Canyon University’s Ethington Theatre, 3300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or by calling 602-639-8880.

Director: Michael Kary
Music Director: Mark Fearey
Scenic Designer: William Symington
Costume Designer: Nola Yergen
Light Design: Autumn Ford
Hair and Makeup Designer: Rebecca Bain
Sound Designer: Daniella Brown
Props Designer: Ivy Angle
Technical Director: Carrie Hurst

The Cast:
Edward Bloom. Cameron Swindler
Sandra Bloom: Sydney Meyers
Will Bloom: Christian Shepherd
Josephine/Dance Captain: Kaitlyn Bearman
Young Will: Vernon Ensor
Jenny Hill/Mermaid: Bella Corsaro
Karl the Giant/Red Fang: Nathan Rojas
Amos Calloway: Dalton Smith
Don Price/Ensemble: Cooper Townley
Jackie Price/Ensemble: Brinn Vennendaal
Dr. Bennett/Mayor/Ensemble: Nick Philips
The Witch/Ensemble: Madison Peters
General Patterson/Ensemble: Alex Medina
Fisherman/Ensemble : Kaylee Wilson
Ensemble/Choreographer: Anna Mettes
Ensemble/Dance Captain: Easton Ikenaga
Ensemble: Kailey Mazur, Thomas Heggem, Peyton Grace Daughtery, Ellie Landes, Peyton Davis, Kaylee Wilson, Anthony Piunno. Ryenne Morgan, Kenzie Huether, Gracie McGraw, Dexter Tuten, Ellie Swain, Gretchen Carpenter, Ella Horner, Payton Sharpe