As members of the University community walked into the University’s Student Activities Building last weekend to watch the First Year Players’ production of “Big Fish,” they were met with exposed overhead pipes, cracked tile floors and bare concrete walls. But inside this brick box, the crew dashed around with props, students quickly lined up rows of chairs and the cast’s backstage hubbub swirled around the room. Youthful energy saturated the space, surrounding the audience with anything but stale air.
This hustle and bustle is the defining characteristic of First Year Players — the University’s largest and oldest student-run theater group. Founded in 1977, the Contracted Independent Organization puts on a musical theater production every semester featuring a cast, crew and orchestra made up entirely of undergrads.
This semester, FYP put on a four-night run from April 20 to 23 of the 2013 Broadway musical “Big Fish” produced by third-year College student Holly Acker and directed by fourth-year Engineering student Dreyden Wedertz. Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions,” the story centers around the life of ultra-charismatic traveling salesman Edward Bloom, played by first-year College student Jack Ireland.
“If you have ever met Jack you know that [charisma] wouldn’t be a problem,” Wedertz said. “He is absolutely hilarious and full of energy and gave Edward so much life.”
Edward’s broad smiles, cheeky quips and drawling southern accent are enough to win over his wife Sandra, played by first-year College student Dakota Hickerson. However, their son Will — played by first-year College student Sophia Fox — feels tricked rather than charmed by the fantastical and ultimately unbelievable life stories his father told him throughout childhood.
The first act of the show consisted of a series of dazzling musical numbers, each depicting one of these larger-than-life tales from Edward’s “past.” From the wild stories of a witch, played by first-year College student Kimora Bryant, to Karl the Giant, played by first-year College student Clay Dickerson, each scene had even more fervor than the last.
“My favorite musical number is by far ‘Out There On The Road’ where Edward befriends Karl the Giant and they head out of the little town of Ashton,” Ireland said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that much fun on stage… the energy was high during the entire song.”
While at times the show exposed its DIY roots, overall these intricate numbers showed off FYP’s impressive technical skills. The stars were hit with spotlights, surrounded by talented background dancers robed in colorful costumes, all standing against various detailed backdrops.
“We had a lot of exciting new technical elements to this show, including colored lights and unique props,” Acker said. “It definitely took some time — and long nights — to work these details out, but the final result made it all worthwhile.”
The through line that connected these over-the-top numbers was the developing romance between Edward and Sandra. From the “West Side Story”-esque love-at-first-sight scene in “Time Stops” to their romantic reunion in “Daffodil,” the chemistry between these two kept the audience swooning.
This long line of mesmerizing tales certainly kept spirits high, but the first act may have left the audience grasping for a tangible plot. After a short intermission, however, the second act brought a new depth, pulling on heartstrings and showing off the cast’s acting chops.
When Edward falls ill, Hickerson delivered a powerful rendition of “I Don’t Need a Roof” expressing Sandra’s impending grief. Despite the stillness of the scene amidst such a chaotic show, Hickerson maintained the audience’s close attention through her beautiful voice.
“What you saw on stage was what they did the very first time with no direction,” Wedertz said. “Myself and the artistic staff were in tears and completely stunned. They made it feel like we got a secret glimpse into a loving wife comforting her dying husband, not two first years in a student-run production.”
In a final tear-jerking number “How it Ends,” Ireland proved he’s more than just big smiles and boyish charm. Tears visibly streaming down his face, Ireland held the crowd in the palm of his hand as he took center stage and belted out the parting words of a dying man — “It all ends well, this much I know.”
“A lot of the emotional scenes naturally made me tear up and feel it on stage,” Ireland said. “The story of ‘Big Fish’ means so much more, and I struggled to hold in the emotion at the end of the show.”
After an inspiring finale where the ensemble reminded the audience to “Be the Hero” of their own story, enthusiasm erupted from the crowd into a standing ovation. Love and gratitude appeared to swell amongst the cast and crew as they gathered arm-in-arm backstage for their final performance of the night — The Good Old Song.
“FYP is also called an FYPhamily or FindYourPlace,” Wedertz said. “Many students find their community here and stick with it for all four years. We spend long hours with each other trying to put on a show and while creating a show, we are also creating bonds and friendships.”
The bonds and friendships were clear in FYP’s production of “Big Fish” — the show mirrored the spirit, hope and bright futures of these budding performers.