‘Big Fish’ at Keegan

Courtney Moran, Dan Van Why and Eitan Mazia in “Big Fish.” Photo by Cameron Whitman. Courtesy Keegan Theatre.

That’s some fish, that “Big Fish.”

The Keegan Theatre’s production of the hit Broadway musical — based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the film adaptation directed by Tim Burton — has been further extended through Sept. 9. 

The success of “Big Fish” is the latest indication that Keegan, founded in 1995 as a theatrical enterprise with a decidedly Irish literary flavor — presenting works by John Synge, Brendan Behan and Brian Friel, for example — has become firmly embedded in Washington, D.C., and the Dupont Circle block where it now resides permanently.

Susan Marie Rhea — wife of Keegan founder Mark A. Rhea — said that “Big Fish” is typical of some of the changes that have occurred since they opened the renovated Church Street theater in 2015.

“We’ve been doing two musicals a year now, and Mark and I split the duties, sometimes in terms of our interests,” she said. “I tend to think in darker terms, he is more upbeat. I directed “Next to Normal” and “American Idiot” as well as “Parade,” and Mark is doing “Big Fish.”

Which gives you an idea that “Big Fish,” while dealing with grown-up family issues, is also family-friendly, she said.

What “Big Fish” has is a deep pedigree, beginning with the novel, but also notably with the 2003 movie version by offbeat director Tim Burton (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Beetlejuice,” “Sleepy Hollow”). It’s a saga about a young man coming to terms with his bigger-than-life father, who’s told tall tales all his life that touch on myth, magic and fairy tales, even as the son is about to become a father himself. The film starred Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor and Jessica Lange.

A Broadway musical, with a book by John August, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and choreography by Susan Stroman, followed in 2013.

“People want to feel good, not just in a superficial way, but in a way that inspires

And ‘Big Fish’ accomplishes that”

– Marie Rhea

“I think that this musical appeals to a broad audience. In some ways, it’s perfect for the times. People want to feel good, not just in a superficial way, but in a way that inspires. And ‘Big Fish’ accomplishes that,” Susan Rhea said. She recently was promoted from associate artistic director to artistic director of the theater. Mark Rhea, producing artistic director, is off in Ireland, on what has been a Keegan tradition from the beginning: taking American classics to Irish theaters. This year, it’s “American Buffalo,” David Mamet’s gritty play about small-time crooks.  

Keegan’s first production in the renovated space on Church Street — purchased with the help of a generous, anonymous donor — was the Tennessee Williams classic “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” a keystone and touchstone production in many ways. “Cat,” which has provided memorable roles for many American actors over the years, had also been the first play staged by Keegan during its 1997-98 season. The last time it was staged by Keegan, Mark Rhea played Brick and Susan Marie Rhea played Maggie the Cat.

“That was a perfect fit for our new venue,” she said. They co-directed the play at that time.

“Obviously, we had to learn a lot,” she said. “The idea of a more business-oriented operation. We had to pay a lot more attention to that than in our earlier incarnations. But we learned, and we had new ways of doing things — turning to patrons, for instance, to sponsor individual performances, using our resources to the utmost in creating seasons continuing our interests and traditions in Irish theater, including contemporary playwrights, as well as American classics and musicals.

“We feel … that we are at home in a community where we have been welcomed, and are very much a part of the daily life of the community here. We draw from our old audiences in Virginia, the whole city and region now, and we have built a community audience. That’s very gratifying.”

In a very short period of time, Keegan has made its mark with numerous Helen Hayes nominations and wins.

But the true reflection is to look over the history and the choices. You see traditions upheld, moving forward, taking risks and chances, jumping into the dark of new ideas and new plays from the beginning. The list of Keegan productions charts a journey to a new level of confidence, as exemplified, for instance, by a true-toned and big-cast production of “Hair” in 2014.

 And now beware of the circus and giants and mermaids and — not “oh, my,” but “oh, yes” — “Big Fish.”

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