“People want to see things beyond their imagination: Bigger than life,” the carnival barker who’s a werewolf tells the cave-dwelling giant who becomes a titan of industry in “Big Fish,” a whopper of a new musical about whoppers.
Adapted from the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” and the 2003 Tim Burton movie of the same name, Big Fish on Broadway tells the story of Alabama storyteller Edward Bloom’s tall tales in a stage extravaganza featuring a huge cast of outsized talents giving excellent performances, including Norbert Leo Butz as Bloom, Kate Baldwin as his beloved wife Sandra and Bobby Steggert as his skeptical and resentful son Will. The film’s screenwriter, John August, spent an enormous amount of time, nine years, collaborating with composer Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family,” “The Wild Party”) to translate this story for the stage. Director and choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers,” “The Scottsboro Boys”) has turned each of Edward’s adventures into the same kind of massively synchronized and colorful production numbers that helped make Kathleen Marshall’s “Anything Goes” a big hit.
An over-the-top/big-top approach doesn’t always spell success. Stroman also choreographed “Big,” based on the Tom Hanks movie, a 1996 Broadway musical notorious for its excess. What separates “Big Fish” from “Big” is the best of August’s dialogue and most of Andrew Lippa’s score. Lippa inclines towards sweet ballads – there was one such song after another in the second act of “The Addams Family,” to its detriment, since they were in lieu of a plot. But here, Lippa’s lovely songs help direct our attention to what is supposed to be the emotional core of the show, the two central relationships — between the father and the son, and between the husband and wife.
Butz and Baldwin sing “Time Stops” when they first meet in the middle of a circus. (Below is a version recorded during the lunch-time concert series Broadway in Bryant Park one rainy day last summer)
On stage at the Neil Simon, all the circus acts are frozen — time has stopped.
Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin play Edward and Sandra all the way through (the movie split the roles between younger and older actors.) While it requires a willful suspension of disbelief to picture them as either teenagers or senior citizens. it is difficult to picture performers better suited for this show (and, truth be told, for nearly any Broadway musical.)
The most important relationship in the musical is between the father and son. Will tired of hearing Edward’s implausible-sounding adventures from an early age (He was played as a six-year-old by Zachary Unger in the performance I attended). Here again from last summer, Edward sings “Fight The Dragons”
Now Will has grown up, and is about to be a husband and father, and he wants to know more about his father — whether there is any truth to any of what Edward has told him, and whether there are truths he hasn’t told him. We flash back to Edward’s encounters with a witch, a mermaid, a giant, a werewolf; the story of how he defeated an evil would-be assassin, the turning point in the Allied victory in World War II; and, more importantly, how he vanquished the town bully in his hometown of Ashton, Alabama to win over the love of his life – his wife, Will’s mother, Sandra — whom he wooed by covering the land as far as the eye could see with daffodils, her favorite flower.
The musical has a wondrous production design — courtesy of scenic designer Julian Crouch, costume designer William Ivey Long, lighting designer Donald Holder, and projection designer Benjamin Pearcy working in concert. Watch while gnarled tree trunks transform into whirling witches and back again; and when a campfire turns into a sexy dancer. The musical also starts off on the right foot — literally — with a song in which Edward introduces most of his adventures to his son, concluding with a rousing bluesy “Alabama Stomp,” a terrific dance number that wakes up the fish in the river and makes them fly up on the shore.
The production numbers that follow are all energetic, vivid and well executed; some are even exhilarating. One oddity seems to be almost an outtake from Anything Goes: “Red, White and True” is an Andrews Sister- inspired World War II number featuring a chorus of U.S.O. girls in red-white-and-blue outfits and Burton as a sexy lounge singer, Butz pursuing a masked assassin to protect an admiral, and even the entire orchestra revealed on the back wall on three different levels.
But Tim Burton’s film puts the story of the personal relationship between father and son on a parallel track to Edward’s fantastical adventures, with an emotional payoff at the end when the two tracks merge. By contrast, the musical doesn’t effectively integrate its disparate elements into a seamless whole. The surprising consequence of so much elaborate staging is the increasing perception that the big numbers are too similar; the eventual result comes close to tedium, despite (or because of?) the high spirits.
In trying to convince Karl (the excellent Ryan Andes) to leave his cave and see the world, Edward tells him: “The world is huge!”
“197 million square miles,” Karl replies. “Approximately.”
“Say,” Edward says, “you’re good with numbers.”
“Only big ones.”
But Big Fish does better with the small numbers.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
Neil Simon Theater
Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Book by John August, adapted from his screenplay and from the novel by Daniel Wallace
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, scenic design by Julian Crouch, costume design by William Ivey Long, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by Jon Weston, production design by
Benjamin Pearcy, musical direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell, orchestrations by Larry Hochman, dance arrangements by Sam Davis
Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin,Bobby Steggert, Krystal Joy Brown, Zachary Unger, Anthony Pierini, Ryan Andes, Ben Crawford, J.C. Montgomery, Brad Oscar, Ciara Renee, Kirsten Scott, Sarrah Strimel, Preston Truman Boyd, Bree Branker, Alex Brightman, Joshua Buscher, Robin Campbell, Bryn Dowling, Jason Lee Garrett, Leah Hoffman, Synthia Link, Angie Schworer, Lara Seibert, Tally Sessions, Cary Tedder, Ashley Yeater
Tickets: $49 – $142. Student rush: $27
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission