Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow
Traveling salesmen were once ubiquitous, smiling in a rumpled suit, popping the trunk of an old Cadillac to pull out a vacuum cleaner or pots and pans in hometowns everywhere.
They are a thing of the past and a perfect vocation to represent an older man who has seen the world pass him by, wondering if he’d made any difference at all.
Edward Bloom, the main character in Grand Canyon University Theatre Department’s production of “Big Fish,” which opens Friday in Ethington Theatre, was a traveling salesman who told tall tales of his adventures on the road. His son, William, grew up believing those tales, until he grew up. As Edward nears his end, father and son try to understand how those stories shaped their lives and relationship.
It’s a flipped take on Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” when a traveling salesman considers his life small, then puts the weight of expectations on his sons who idolize him, until they find out he lived down to his own disappointments. It’s tragic.
“(“Big Fish”) is another story about a traveling salesman and his boy who has put the weight of being significant on himself,” said Michael Kary, the production’s director and a College of Arts and Media instructor. “At the end, he says he has lived a small life and wanted to be remembered bigger than he was. They are both coming at the same thing but from different angles.”
The difference this time, as his boy finds out, is his father was bigger, in his own special way. It’s a feel-good “Death of a Salesman” with fun music, dancing and tall tales. If you’ve ever seen the 2003 Tim Burton movie “Big Fish,” you know it’s colorful.
The huge cast of 37 students will sing, dance and wear numerous costumes to represent those tall tales on a spinning stage retrofitted for automation with the help of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology's John Burkheimer.
“It’s half musical and half play,” Kary said. “Most of the play is about what’s real and what’s not, which makes it great for a musical for that half.
“And it’s also about a father and a son. Being a father and a son at the same time, I connect to the story. It’s about that moment in our childrens’ lives when they start thinking they know more than their parents do and that moment in parents’ lives when children are people on their own and not their clones.”
The tall-tale-telling father is almost as ubiquitous as the salesman in American lore, and Kary can relate. He had one, too. And he has a few stories for his own sons.
“It is so universal. There is a moment in the show when the fiancée asks, ‘How many stories does he have? — I don’t know I never counted — Well, you should have.’ The Karys have a number of my dad’s stories. They are equally outrageous.”
Big fish stories.
Sydney Meyers’ dad had one of those big fish stories, his arms spreading wider to show its length with each telling.
The senior vocal performance major plays Sandra Bloom, the wife of Edward. She connected with the story of parents and their children and what they want them to become.
“My dad was intentional in the lessons he taught us and the time he spent with us — that we would become the kind of people he knew we could be,” she said.
The cast was taken by the story throughout rehearsals.
“It’s very emotional. We cry almost every time we run through the show. It’s such a moving story,” she said.
The set design creates an adventure through dozens of locations, and the choreographers also did double time with spirited numbers. But Meyers and lead Cameron Swindler, who plays Edward Bloom, carry a heavy load.
Swindler counted his lines once but got lost in the numbers; he leaves the stage so infrequently that he will place water bottles at each side and even sneak one on stage to stay hydrated.
“Edward is a complex character, a dad who tells fantastic stories about his life to connect with his son,” said Swindler. “His son isn’t receptive to that until the end of his life.”
Swindler said his father didn’t tell big tales — “he’s a Japanese accountant, very methodical and reserved” — but his friend’s father from the South was a mentor who told some whoppers.
The show matches the fun with its great music and color, said the senior finance major, but “it also has a lot of emotional depth to it.”
Kary said it deals with “real stuff.”
“The loss of people. Being honest with people,” he said. “Seeing yourself in someone else is a big theme. And fidelity.”
William Bloom sets out to prove his father cheated on his mother. But what the son finds out changes his perception of his father, as it does for many when a parent is near their end. We find out that the story people tell of their own lives and its reality are blurred, and often we’re not sure if it matters. There is virtue in the telling and the remembering.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
How to see “Big Fish"
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Ethington Theatre. Same times the following weekend, March 31-April 2. Reserve your tickets here or in person or over the phone through the Arena box office at 602-639-8979.