April 26, 2024

Rep's 'Big Fish' is a fantastical, interdisciplinary production

Alura Long in UNL’s production of “Big Fish.”
Taryn Hamill | University Communication and Marketing

Taryn Hamill | University Communication and Marketing
Aura Long performs a scene during the "Big Fish" rehearsal.

"Big Fish," a musical presented by the Nebraska Repertory Theatre, is showing through May 4 in Howell Theatre, on the first floor of the Temple Building at 12th and R streets.

The production is in partnership with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Glenn Korff School of Music's opera program. Showtimes and tickets are available online.

The fantastical musical, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by John August, revolves around the extraordinary life of Edward Bloom, a charismatic storyteller with a penchant for embellishment. As his son, Will, attempts to separate fact from fiction, the musical takes the audience on a magical journey through a world of tall tales, love and reconciliation while celebrating the power of imagination. The story was turned into a 2003 film by director Tim Burton.

The production is directed by Ann Marie Pollard, assistant professor of practice in theatre, with musical direction by Suna Gunther, assistant professor of voice. The production includes feature projections designed by Anna Henson, assistant professor of practice in emerging media arts.

“Theatre is inherently collaborative — musical theatre even more so,” Pollard said. “The real spirit of collaboration with this production stems from the fact that we’re training both undergraduate and graduate students in the process.”

The production phase includes the usual collaborators — Pollard as director and choreographer, Gunther as musical director, along with the full design team, technician team, stage management team, and musicians in the pit.

“But nearly every role also has an assistant,” Pollard said. “Doctoral candidate Kate Mathews is serving as assistant musical director and will conduct several performances. Gracie Valero-Garsow is serving as our undergraduate assistant director, and Joshua Pitt is supporting the production as part of his teaching assistantship. Syrin Weeks and Atlas Martin are being mentored in stage management by Brad Buffum to coordinate all the moving parts. In the cast we have internal understudies for the lead roles and external swings for the ensemble. There’s a real atmosphere of learning through the experience of being in the room.”

Gunther wears a lot of hats in a show like “Big Fish.”

“Before rehearsals started this spring, I met with each performer individually to help them prepare their music and made sure all of the singing lines we assigned them were comfortable in their voices,” she said. “In rehearsals, I’ll sometimes be playing piano, sometimes be conducting, and sometimes be listening and giving feedback and how we can integrate the music with Ann Marie’s vision for the rest of the show in the most authentic, cohesive, meaningful and healthy way possible.”

Gunther also assembled a pit orchestra comprised of students, faculty and community members and has been rehearsing with them separately.

“I’ve got two wonderful graduate assistants on board for this project, Joshua Pitt and Kate Mathews," Gunther said. "Joshua has been helping give feedback to the performers, and Kate will be conducting the majority of the final performances while I cover certain instrumental parts and sound cues on the keyboard.”

Emerging Media Arts students Eliot Starlin-Hintz and Kaden Garcia have been assisting Henson with the projections.

“Being an assistant projection designer for ‘Big Fish’ has been a highlight of my undergraduate studies,” Starlin-Hintz said. “My work on ‘Big Fish’ is a culmination of many of my long-time passions including collage, animation and projections. ‘Big Fish’ is the largest project I have worked on and has allowed me to understand how theater productions are created cohesively. We worked around the clock to create animated environments and magical elements on stage.”

Garcia added, "This is the largest production I’ve seen at UNL, so expect a *big* show. There’s a lot of collaboration happening across the arts programs on campus, so people should keep an eye out to see how we’ve utilized everyone’s strengths and talents to tell this story.”

Audiences will also find something for everyone in the production.

“For young adults, there’s a realistic dramatization of growing into new relationships with parents and caretakers,” Pollard said. “For kids, there’s beautiful spectacle-based storytelling. For musicians, there are a variety of musical styles, and Andrew Lippa’s score sweeps me off my metaphorical feet just about daily in rehearsals. It’s a love story, a coming-of-age story, and an epic tale all wrapped into one.”

The music is also from various genres, ensuring that audience members will have a favorite tune or two, no matter what.

“We have shades of country, funk, jazzy big band, and Hollywood romance — all of which somehow seamlessly come together to speak one language,” Gunther said. “The cast had the opportunity to talk to the composer, Andrew Lippa, via Zoom, and one of the things they asked him was how he managed to accomplish this. Mr. Lipps shared some really brilliant insights into how he linked different musical ideas through different songs and different styles. The cast is doing a beautiful job of not only meeting the technical challenges of this music, but also its emotional challenges.

“Audiences should expect a full gamut of emotions — laughter, tears, and lots of excitement culminating in a really satisfying, heartfelt resolution."

Assistant Professor of Practice in Emerging Media Arts Anna Henson speaks to cast and crew at an early table read for "Big Fish." Photo by Brian Garbrecht.
Courtesy | Brian Garbrecht
Anna Henson, assistant professor of practice in emerging media arts, speaks to cast and crew at an early table read for "Big Fish."