'Big Fish: The Musical': Theater Review

BIG FISH Production Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Tristram Kenton
A hit-and-myth production with a truth-bending message for Trumpian times.

Kelsey Grammer stars in the London premiere of Andrew Lippa's family-friendly musical, adapted from the Daniel Wallace novel and Tim Burton film.

A folksy fairy tale about the importance of not being earnest, Daniel Wallace’s 1998 best-seller Big Fish has swum upriver from page to screen to stage, first inspiring a 2003 Tim Burton movie, then a 2013 Broadway musical, which opened to respectable reviews but closed after just three months. In lightly reshuffled form, the musical is now making its London debut at The Other Palace, a 312-seat off-West End space acquired a year ago by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group.

With Cheers and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer headlining the cast, Big Fish is directed by the relatively inexperienced Nigel Harman, better known as an Oliver-winning stage actor whose TV credits include Downton Abbey. This production inevitably scales down Susan Stroman’s big-budget Broadway blueprint, its sets and props looking a little threadbare in places. But Grammer’s marquee name, public affection for the book and film plus a general tone of undemanding sentimentality should ensure healthy bookings for its limited holiday-season run.

Unresolved tensions between larger-than-life Alabama fabulist Edward Bloom (Grammer) and his semi-estranged reporter son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) reach crisis point at Will’s wedding to his pregnant wife Josephine (Frances McNamee), when Will’s mother Sandra (Claire Burt) reveals Edward is dying of cancer. With limited time left, Will struggles to overcome the resentment he has long felt toward his father’s tall tales, seeking to understand the real man behind the egotistical, evasive, elaborately embroidered fabrications. In doing so, he must listen again to Edward’s preposterously overblown legends about his youthful adventures traversing a mythic America peopled with mermaids, giants, witches and werewolves.

If you buy into its disingenuous magic-realist whimsy, Big Fish is part Homer’s Odyssey, part The Wizard of Oz and part Death of a Salesman. If it fails to grab you emotionally, it is basically Forrest Gump reimagined for a Trumpian era of alternative facts and fake news. Forrest Trump, perhaps. A more daring production might have found a way to work in these timely resonances, but there is no subversive subtext or post-modern irony here. Harman’s by-the-numbers treatment is pitched firmly as mainstream family entertainment, and as such it achieves its middlebrow ambitions with modest success. There were certainly plenty of stifled sobs and standing ovations at the London press night.

The musical menu has been pruned and re-ordered post-Broadway, with three songs dropped entirely while the father-son duet, “Fight the Dragons,” moves from Act 2 to Act 1, replacing “Be the Hero” as the scene-setting number. These cuts are no great loss, as Lippa’s literal-minded lyrics and tastefully beige Lloyd Webber-ish melodies are hardly strong selling points — big on cloying sincerity but low on zingy lines. That said, a few musical set-pieces are delivered with great verve, notably Landi Oshinowo’s raunchy “Witch,” Burt’s heart-tugging solo ballad “I Don’t Need a Roof” and the rollicking full-cast number “Red, White and True,” which is performed as part of a razzle-dazzle USO show during Edward’s alleged wartime antics.

Slow to warm up, Big Fish drags a little during its labored first act as Will and Edward map out the terms of their long-standing estrangement. Fortunately the fun factor picks up during the later flashback sequences, the duty to po-faced realism receding as surreal spectacle takes over. The limited resources of Harman’s production become more problematic here, as cheap-looking sets and video projections stand in for Stroman’s deluxe Broadway visuals. Budget is no substitute for imagination, of course, but Edward’s kaleidoscopic fairy tales deserve a grander canvas than this.

Beneath its syrupy surface, Big Fish expects us to empathize with two petulant man-babies, each overindulged by adoring women who serve only as thinly realized supporting players throughout the story. Given this premise, considerable charm is required to make the borderline sociopathic Bloom menfolk likeable. So credit is due to Grammer for a performance that conveys the playful, big-hearted, childlike generosity of spirit behind Edward’s self-aggrandizing fantasies without showboating or overly emoting. There is scant trace of Frasier Crane’s starchy neurosis here. Grammer’s singing voice, a gruff baritone that shades into speak-singing at times, has warmth even if it lacks show-stopping power.

Burdened with the uptight killjoy role of Will, the fall guy in a one-sided fable clearly weighted against him, Seadon-Young inevitably comes across as a pompous young prig by comparison. But Jamie Muscato is a pocket dynamo as Edward’s semi-fictionalized younger self, combining a strong singing voice with rubber-limbed energy, literally jumping through hoops during one number. Seasoned Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Forbes Masson brings a clownish sense of mischief to his dual roles as Edward’s love rival Don and circus ringmaster Amos, breaking the fourth wall and joking with the audience. Oshinowo also shines in twin turns as the Witch and Edward’s former high-school sweetheart Jenny, one of several dead-end subplots that remain underexplained.

Big Fish works hard to earn its sentimental payoff, and mostly wins over the doubters by the end. My 13-year-old nephew was certainly impressed, which may be indicative of the ideal target audience. Still singing, dancing and spinning yarns on his deathbed, Edward Bloom wryly summarizes his life as “part epic tale, part fire sale” — the perfect metaphor for this sporadically enchanting, occasionally grating production.

Venue: The Other Palace, London
Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Clare Burt, Matthew Seadon-Young, Frances McNamee, Landi Oshinowo, Jamie Muscato, Forbes Masson, Dean Nolan, Laura Baldwin
Director: Nigel Harman
Book: John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace
Music and lyrics: Andrew Lippa
Set and costume designer: Tom Rogers
Lighting designer: Bruno Poet
Projection designer: Duncan McLean
Sound designers: Avgoustos Psillas, Luke Swaffield for Autograph
Choreographer: Liam Steel
Music supervisor, arrangements and orchestrations: Alan Williams
Musical director: Alan Berry
Presented by Big Fish Productions, Selladoor Worldwide, Baiyue Culture Creative, Dominic May, Underbelly Productions