Moira Miller

Big Fish at the Ritz Theatre Company

“Be the hero of your story,” Edward Bloom (played by Chris Monaco) told his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri). Edward had quite a tale to tell. It included a witch (Rachel Klien), a mermaid (Lauren Bristow) and a giant (Jared Paxson) along with some memorable human characters; one of whom suffered from lycanthropy (Anthony Joseph Magnotta). Big Fish followed this fabulous fabulist of a father as his son Will (Frankie Rowles) endeavored to discover the man behind the myths. Director Matt Reher along with the cast and crew at the Ritz Theatre took the audience along this magical journey. I attended the May 8th performance.

At the beginning, playwright John August and songwriter Andrew Lippa gave the audience a sense of the evening they could expect. The “Be the Hero” track included a section where Edward Bloom described his unconventional approach to fishing. Calling it the “Alabama Stomp,” Mr. Monaco led the ensemble through a percussive dance routine. Fish leapt out of the water in response to it.

It’s quite a challenge to dance and sing at the same time. Big Fish added a tricky third element by requiring performers to catch large fish thrown from off stage. The cast executed this task without flaw.

The Ritz provided extraordinary atmospherics for this show. In the prelude to the “I Know What You Want” number, Technical Director Connor Profitt transformed the theatre into an eerie swamp. As Edward and his friends searched for the witch, the cricket sounds, dim lighting and smoke made it easy for me to suspend my disbelief.

Lauren Bristow’s solo dancing contained excellent choreography by Devon Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair also coordinated more elaborate routines that included the cast and ensemble; the best comprised the witch’s “I Know What You Want”, “Little Lamb from Alabama” and “Closer to Her.”

Aside from the fantastical elements, Big Fish contained a very “human” story. Edward (Chris Monaco) liked to relate the events of his life through fictitious tales. He described his and his wife Sandra’s (Megan Ruggles) courtship in hyper-romantic terms; as shown through the “Closer to Her” and “Daffodils” numbers. He entertained his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri) with stories containing a message. An encounter with a witch (Rachel Klein) taught him not to fear death. A mermaid (Lauren Bristow) showed him that love changes a person.

Young Will’s frustration with his father’s tale telling became hostile when he reached adulthood. His wife Josephine (Jamie Talamo) encouraged him to seek the lessons hidden in Edward’s stories. Upon receiving news of his father’s illness, Will (Frankie Rowles) sought to traverse the metaphorical river between them. When Will discovered that his father co-signed a mortgage for his high school sweetheart’s (Jenny Hill played by Colleen Murphy) home, he confronted his father.

Chris Monaco made his Ritz Mainstage debut in the lead role. He captured the upbeat nature of Edward’s personality along with his frustration with Will’s focus on “truth.” Mr. Monaco showed the depth of the character’s affection for Sandra in his scenes with Mrs. Ruggles. And most important: the man could tell a story.

Frankie Rowles played an excellent antagonist to Mr. Monaco. He concretized Will’s own annoyance with his father and his “tall tales.” Mr. Rowles conveyed that sentiment in song through a powerful rendition of “Stranger.” Without giving away spoilers, I will write that the performer enacted his character’s change in a believable fashion.

Big Fish contained beautiful music. Mr. Monaco performed a pining rendition of “Time Stops.” Megan Ruggles and members of the ensemble performed the quick dance moves from “Little Lamb from Alabama” in slow motion. Ms. Ruggles bashful vocals complimented the longing in Mr. Monaco’s.

Act One ended with “Daffodils.” The title referred to Sandra’s favorite flower. Mr. Monaco’s character proceeded to remove one-at-a-time from a bag while serenading Ms. Ruggles. The two performers captured the essence of the following exchange in song.

Sandra: You don’t even know me.

Will: I have the rest of my life to find out.  

Ms. Ruggles delivered a heart rending version of “I Don’t Need a Roof.” To add to the song’s mood, she cradled Mr. Monaco in her lap as she sang. Her performance made this scene the most touching moment of the show. With so many touching moments in Big Fish, this is a noteworthy achievement.

Moira Miller added superb costuming to this production. It enhanced the visual spectacle. From the country folk of Ashton, Alabama to the mystical figures the attire reflected each character’s personality.

Will’s clothing showed the iconoclastic nature of the man underneath it. He wore a jacket and tie to his son’s wedding reception along with a pair of khakis. His son dressed in a traditional suit. The attire displayed the variance in the two characters’ personalities.

The costumes the witch, the mermaid and the giant wore showed remarkable creativity. The witch’s included a pattern that resembled the surface of a cobra’s skin. The gold texture on the ringmaster (Amos Calloway played by Anthony Joseph Magnotta) costume glittered under the lights.

Ritz Big Fish 05

Chris Monaco and Ensemble

In homage to Edward’s fondness for hyperbole, I write that Big Fish contained enough props to fit in a small warehouse. While a bit of an exaggeration, it’s absolute fact that Melissa Harnois did an excellent work managing all these items. As the set (designed by William Bryant) included Edward’s attic, it contained a lot of miscellany.

Malik Muhammad, AJ Love, Chantel Cumberbatch and Meredith Meghan completed the ensemble.

Hillary Kurtz executed Chris Miller’s lighting design without flaw. Matthew Gallagher managed the sound design. Brian Bacon served as Musical Director.

With a great message, fantastical characters and superb musical numbers, Big Fish made for one entertaining evening of theatre going. Director Matt Reher wrote: Truth is not the same as fact. Regarding my assessment of Big Fish, they are.

Big Fish runs through May 19th at the Ritz Theatre Company.


Theater Review – A Man of No Importance – Burlington County Footlighters Intern Co.

What an outstanding effort by an “Intern Company”! I attended a performance of A Man of No Importance at Burlington County Footlighters in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. The cast, crew and band performed an exceptional job of staging this production set in 1964 Dublin. They did so well with the costuming, dancing and Irish accents, that I could taste the Guiness. When I got up to leave the theater I caught myself looking around for my Nehru jacket. Talk about getting into a play!

A Man of No Importance was the most challenging musical I’ve ever seen. A number of scenes entailed solo singing without the benefit of musical accompaniment. To make matters tougher for the actors, but I can’t imagine the ardors of trying this in a thick Irish Brogue in front of a live audience. I give Ryan Kiernan (Alfie) great credit for taking on such a demanding role, I’d give him even more kudos for the outstanding way he pulled it off. Anthony Ieradi (Robbie) and Allie Payne (Lily) turned in exceptional vocal performances as well.

I liked the overall premise of the story. It showed the travails of a theater group attempting to put on a scandalous play in a church; that performance being Oscar Wilde’s Salome. (Hey, this was the 1960s.) As the drama progressed, the figure of Salome (Moira Miller) periodically danced in the background. Each time she’d appear, she’d remove one of her veils to reflect the further revealing of the tale. I won’t give away spoilers, but Oscar Wilde figured into the story and even spoke to Alfie on several occasions.

It surprised me to discover that (according to Wikipedia) the play was based on a 1994 film. I didn’t think that the major issues explored in the drama would have the same impact with a modern audience as they would in 1964 Dublin. Today, the ideas of a single mother, homosexuality and marital infidelity are blasé ideas to incorporate into a story. I realized the real point centered on how the protagonist (Alfie) responded to them. His friend Robbie told him he needed to see more of real Dublin. Alfie’s sister explained that he had a lot of books. The story served as an enlightening peek at one man’s voyage of self-discovery in a supposedly conservative society.

One issue I usually have with musicals in that the constant singing tends to break up the narrative flow. The songs in A Man of No Importance, helped advance the story. Mr. Kiernan’s rendition of “Welcome to the World” drew me into the character’s emotional state. I’ve never heard a song that achieved this so well.

Moira Miller (Salome) did an exceptional job with costume design. Everyone dressed just like someone from the period. I got a true sense that the action took place in the 1960s based on the actors’ attire. The added touch of the janitor’s “Yardbirds” tee shirt showed phenomenal attention to detail.

I have to admit that I liked the performers much more than I enjoyed the show itself. I’m always impressed by the skill level of the actors in so-called “community theater.” The traditional Irish dance at the opening of Act II was absolutely phenomenal. I couldn’t believe that the performers in this show either attended high school or college. They seemed much too advanced in the craft for “interns”. They may be men/women of supposedly no importance now, but they’ll be big somebodies on Broadway someday if they keep turning in solid performances like they did today.