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NEW YORK – What better form in which to explore the intersection between extravagant myth and everyday reality than musical theater? Director-choreographer Susan Stroman clearly understands this, which makes her the ideal storyteller to shepherd Big Fish to the stage, trumpeting its celebration of the transformative power of fiction in song. Elevated by clever design work and accomplished leads, this show pushes the requisite buttons as it bridges the emotional distance between a discordant father and son. So when audience members around me were dabbing their eyes through the protracted finale, why did I want to take a shower?
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The musical slaps on the sentiment with a heavy hand, and given that it’s ultimately quite moving, that’s no crime. But I couldn’t get past fundamental problems with the source material. Let me confess straight up that the 2003 Tim Burton film left me cold, straining for magical-realist whimsy with all the gentle seduction of a knife-point rapist. In many ways, Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel is better served by this slick stage version, which has a book by John August, who also penned the screenplay for Burton’s movie. But this is a story that coerces us into loving a narcissistic blowhard while frowning at the killjoy son who sensibly refuses to buy into his dad’s self-glorifying tall tales.
At the risk of inviting the usual unhinged tirade in the comments section, Big Fish seems like a Broadway musical that might qualify for a Tea Party endorsement. It’s a hymn to America the Delusional, with a motto that might be, “If you lie with enough conviction, it will eventually be accepted as truth.” The fact that the show is set in a squeaky-clean South devoid of troublesome socio-historical context makes it all the more simplistic. So if that kneejerk distaste for the material, its central character and its ideology – intended or not – rules me out from objective discussion of this musical’s merits, feel free not to read on.
With that large caveat out of the way, the show and Stroman’s often dazzling production have a lot going for them. Wallace’s novel draws on the storytelling traditions of the Old South, with a dash of Mark Twain, a hint of The Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses, and a winking acknowledgement to the twelve labors of Hercules. So it’s fitting that the first big number of Andrew Lippa’s pleasantly melodic score is “Be the Hero,” in which inveterate fabulist Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz) exhorts his stubbornly analytical young son Will (Zachary Unger) to rewrite his own fate by depicting himself as a champion instead of an ordinary man.
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The terrific song also serves for Stroman to introduce the colorful figures Edward will encounter in his version of his life story, from a Witch (Ciara Renee) to a Giant (Ryan Andes) to a Circus Impresario (Brad Oscar) to a Mermaid (Sarrah Strimel). Production designer Julian Crouch, costumer William Ivey Long and lighting magician Donald Holder conjure a vibrant storybook environment, with an assist from Benjamin Pearcy’s projections. But while there are delightful touches – like the dancing elephant butts in the circus sequence – little else in the show hits the mark as effectively as that opening.
The big conflict is that Edward’s woolly yarns don’t wash with Will, played as an adult by Bobby Steggert. On the eve of his wedding, Will asks his father to refrain from making the event all about him by telling his usual jokes, stories and anecdotes. But the old man can’t help himself. Only when Will and his wife Josephine (Krystal Joy Brown) are expecting a son, and he receives the news that Edward is dying of cancer, does Will set out to sort fact from fiction in a determined bid to get to know his elusive dad. That impulse is persuasively conveyed by the honey-voiced Steggert in one of the score’s best songs, “Strangers.”
While the salvaging of a difficult father-son relationship is the emotional core of the show, it’s also a love story between Edward and Sandra (Kate Baldwin), the girl he decides will be his wife as soon as he glimpses her at a circus audition. The character is as underdeveloped as she was in the movie, basically only on hand to supply adoring indulgence of Edward and his florid tales. However, Baldwin brings charm and serene graciousness to Sandra, making her a useful peacekeeper between Edward and Will. Her vocals are at their loveliest in the pretty second-act ballad, “I Don’t Need a Roof.” And designer Crouch takes a gorgeous visual cue from the screen version with his enchanting backdrop for Edward’s proposal during the Act I closer, “Daffodils.”
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Stroman’s work here doesn’t match the bold simplicity of her staging of The Scottsboro Boys or her infectious funhouse management in The Producers. But the director’s grasp of showmanship as an essential tool of storytelling is evident at every turn, particularly in the lissome transitions between reality and fantasy, past and present. Given that a river occupies the orchestra pit, it’s clear that the musicians must be someplace else, and Stroman waits to reveal them with a characteristically theatrical flourish.
While the lyrics are more literal than imaginative, not to mention doused in Hallmark syrup, Lippa’s score is better than his last show, The Adams Family. It freely mixes old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley with pop, using banjos to evocative effect for a show set in Alabama and Mississippi.
As in Burton’s movie, the episodes of Edward’s picaresque adventures don’t add up to much more than fanciful detours along the road to the protagonist’s predictable beatification. Some are more captivating than others and few are funny. But they acquire humanity thanks to Butz’s nuanced lead performance. Given that every other character onstage exists solely in service to this egomaniac, that’s a mercy. Butz is an exceptional musical-theater talent; he skillfully mitigates Edward’s vast potential to irritate, and the actor tempers his trademark mischievous ebullience with genuine feeling. That sincerity goes a long way toward making the show’s sentimentality palatable, even if August pushes it with multiple endings, each one tugging more aggressively at the heartstrings.
But many audiences will lap it up, and nobody’s begrudging them that. A lot of loving craftsmanship has gone into this musical, and it delivers satisfying entertainment for those who don’t mind being emotionally manipulated.
Venue: Neil Simon Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin, Bobby Steggert, Krystal Joy Brown, Anthony Pierini, Zachary Unger, Ryan Andes, Ben Crawford, Brad Oscar, JC Montgomery, Clara Renee, Kristen Scott, Sarrah Strimel
Director-choreographer: Susan Stroman
Book: John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the Columbia Pictures film screenplay by August
Music & lyrics: Andrew Lippa
Production designer: Julian Crouch
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Projection designer: Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions
Orchestrations: Larry Hochman
Music director: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Presented by Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen, Stage Entertainment USA, Roy Furman, Edward Walson, James L. Nederlander, Broadway Across America/Rich Entertainment Group, John Domo, in association with Parrothead Productions, Lucky Fish, Peter May/Jim Fantaci, Harvey Weinstein/Carole L. Haber, Dancing Elephant Productions, CJ E&M, Ted Liebowitz, Ted Hartley, Clay Floren, Columbia Pictures
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