Photo by Paul Kolnik
Tony-nominated actress Kate Baldwin has no idea who I am. Not surprising; we’ve never officially met. Yet at Broadway-bound Big Fish’s Chicago opening, watching her command the hushed theater, I awakened to a sense of deja vu. Baldwin’s easy power was no surprise given her talent, but a feat given her role. A musical adaptation of the 2003 film, Big Fish is a play about men: boyhood dreams, adult male disappointments and triumphs, but mostly father/son dynamics. Through exuberant dance and about ten too many go-nowhere songs, the show explores the life of enigmatic Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz). A traveling salesman whose tall tales sometimes obscure his actual achievements, Edward has a strained relationship with his son, Will (Bobby Steggert). Years after a falling out, the two must come to terms with each other as Edward struggles with cancer.
But back to my deja vu. There's a perfectly logical explanation for it. I spent my formative years watching Kate Baldwin. We both attended the same small, Wisconsin high school--a phrase evoking wandering cows and football heroes, but Shorewood High School was known for its drama department which functioned like a professional repertory. Each season Shorewood put up 3-4 shows culminating in a much anticipated musical. And we aren’t talking a sloppy line of off-key Von Trapps done up in gingham with a math teacher recruited to play Mother Superior. Perhaps because our football team was on a ten year losing streak (sorry to bring it up, Brian Wallace), or maybe because the drama teacher put the fear of God into anyone within a ten mile radius, SHS drama had both the funds and the determination to pull off Broadway caliber shows. Or at least touring production caliber. Or at least in my eyes.
Kate was about five grades ahead of me, so while I dutifully memorized lines for a Dr Seuss Sneetch skit or auditioned to play a cheerleader who learns smart kids are cool, over at the high school, the lucky, older kids tap danced down 42nd Street or sang about greased lightning or smacked down a Sondheim interval. Right at the center of all that jazz was Kate Baldwin.
Photo by Paul Kolnik
My last semester in junior high and Kate’s senior year she played Eva Peron. I’d seen the touring production of Evita months earlier and came away obsessed. When I found out our high school would perform the show a mere four months before I matriculated, I’m pretty sure I cried. Not that I thought I’d missed a chance to inhabit the titular role (Well, maybe part of me did), but really, I just wanted a chance to work with the choreographer Shorewood flew in from New York, to walk the sets the tech crew spent endless hours constructing, to wear a costume pulled from the drama building’s labyrinthine basement. I must have seen the show five times; sneaking into the balcony with my best friend, propped next to my mom in the front row, alone under the neon exit sign, mouthing Eva’s every cutting word. Even as a teenager, Kate’s luminous power projected like a beam of light into her future. Self-contained, radiating understated authority, Kate made it impossible to look elsewhere.
In Big Fish, Baldwin plays Edward’s wife Sandra, and she doesn’t have much to do. She’s the patient partner, the wise mother, the passive pursued. Even so, she imbues her role with characteristic subtle charm and subterranean strength. Baldwin is made to stand center stage, inhabiting powerhouse roles like Eva Peron, but her skill is such that she self-calibrates, recreating herself as the character requires. I’d lost track of her in the years since seeing her summon the attention of each person in our small high school auditorium, but even in a supporting role in the Oriental Theater’s impressive space, she makes it all look easy; she’s right where she belongs.
Big Fish runs through May 5th. Purchase tickets here.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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