Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Tall Tale Expertly Told

Review:  Big Fish

Kate Baldwin, Norbert Leo Butz, and believe it or not one of the simpler sets for Broadway's Big Fish

Based on the 2003 Tim Burton film and the novel of the same name, Big Fish has a big budget ($14 million, to be exact) and it shows.  There is no shortage of props, costumes, and various other theatrical accoutrements filling the Neil Simon’s stage, to the point where the elaborate physical production seems poised to overshadow the actual story being told.  Thankfully, the boundless talent and creativity of both the performers and director/choreographer Susan Stroman outshines any stage business, making Big Fish a thoroughly enjoyable musical comedy for the modern era.

The multifaceted story of Big Fish centers on Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman prone to telling fantastical stories about his life to anyone who will listen.  After a lifetime of stories about giants, mermaids, and witches instead of actual human interaction, Edward’s grown son Will harbors a deep-seated resentment towards his absentee father.  But when Will’s mother Sandra calls to reveal Edward has contracted a potentially terminal cancer, the junior Bloom decides now is the time to find out the truth behind his father’s tall tales.  As the narrative jumps between Edward’s fanciful past and less uplifting present, Big Fish ultimately reveals itself as a show very much concerned with fathers, sons, and the legacy we all leave behind when we die.

The whimsical nature of Edward’s stories and the uncomfortably real estrangement between father and son makes for a tricky combination of tones, and kudos must be given to bookwriter John August for blending these disparate elements so seamlessly.  The more outrageous production numbers transition smoothly into intimate character scenes, and the show’s book manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly moving.  August has provided his cast, particularly the charming rascal Edward, with some genuinely hilarious one-liners, while at the same time fleshing out his characters with more depth than typically seen in a musical comedy.  The one real flaw in the script is that it could stand a more cohesive ending; the three false endings presented muddle what could be a powerful conclusion by failing to agree on what the final sentiment of the show should be.

The score by Andrew Lippa is more problematic.  His melodies are certainly pleasing to the ear, and the entire show has been lushly orchestrated by Tony-winner Larry Hochman.  It’s not that Lippa has written bad music, but he does seem to have written the wrong music, and his unnecessarily rangy pop-influenced bombast drowns out the delicate and emotionally complex ideas in his lyrics.  The show’s best musical moments are the quieter ballads, but Lippa seems distrustful of the notion that the simplest solution can often be the best.  So he throws in another modulation and some vocal grandstanding for good measure, making the show sound like every other Broadway score of the past 5 years.  All of that said, Lippa and August have done an excellent job of integrating the songs into the show’s book, and with the exception of Will’s first act solo “Stranger” every musical number feels purposeful and necessary.

5-time Tony winner Susan Stroman directs this material with her trademark wit and invention, creating an unending parade of delightful surprises throughout her fluid staging.  Stroman’s choreography finds the delicate balance between being earnest and self-aware, winking at the audience without mocking the story or the characters.  The only minor quibble with Stroman’s work here is that the material doesn’t afford her a showstopping production number like “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers or “I’ve Got Rhythm” in Crazy for You.  That said, she does stellar work in the Stomp-influenced opening number “Be the Hero” and the wonderfully cheeky USO-inspired “Red, White and True” at the top of the second act.  Her playfulness never distracts from the show’s pace or emotional core, and there is a much-appreciated old school polish to her staging.

Stroman has also assembled a dynamite cast, headed by two-time Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz in yet another spectacular display of his seemingly unending list of talents.  Butz combines the charisma of a leading man with the finely-honed comedic timing of a character actor to create a magnetic Edward Bloom that anchors the entire evening.  Butz gets to play Bloom at every stage of his life, seamlessly transitioning back and forth between Edward’s various ages with only minimal help from costumes and makeup.  Rarely leaving the stage, Butz conjures up unexpected depth and unparalleled showmanship as required, reaffirming his status as one of the most talented actors of his generation and making it impossible to take your eyes off him.

Tony-nominee Bobby Steggert has a tougher time finding his footing in the role of Edward’s son Will, although it is not for lack of trying.  Butz is such a dominate personality that Steggert’s character arc often seems secondary, although the latter actor manages the tricky feat of constantly antagonizing the show’s most charming character without becoming unsympathetic himself.  The subtlety of Steggert’s performance helps guide the audience to an understanding of Edward without beating them over the head with it, and the young performer is in fine voice throughout.

Rounding out the main cast is Kate Baldwin as Sandra Bloom, wife to Edward and mother to Will.  Baldwin is fantastic as the love of Edward’s life, creating a fully realized person in a role which leaves many things unsaid.  With a single glance and a carefully timed sigh Baldwin shows us glimpses of the immense turmoil within this woman forced to watch the two most important men in her life fight with one another, and she fills the flashback scenes with such unbridled joy you instantly understand why Edward is so smitten with her (their initial meeting, the haunting “Time Stops,” is perhaps the single most effective moment of the show).  Baldwin’s crystalline voice also does the best job navigating the highs and lows of Lippa’s score, and her Act II ballad “I Don’t Need a Roof” is heartbreaking.

As for the show’s physical production, making a value judgment about it is unusually tough.  On the one hand, everything about the show is expertly crafted and visually stunning.  The rubic’s cube of a set by Julian Crouch makes the many scene changes virtually seamless, and the projection design by Benjamin Pearcy elevates that particular art to an entirely new level.  Susan Stroman’s continually surprising staging would not be possible without the endlessly inventive costumes by William Ivey Long, several of which provoked audible audience reactions the night I attended.  And yet there is so much of everything, from the various set pieces to the gargantuan number of costumes and props, that it verges on distracting.

There is a lot to like about Big Fish, starting with the dynamic central performance of Norbert Leo Butz.  He is backed by a supremely talented and funny cast that is able to effortlessly shift between the comedic and dramatic tones demanded by the story, which has been expertly mapped out by bookwriter John August and composer Andrew Lippa.  Susan Stroman’s staging is creative without becoming gimmicky, and her originality ensures that there is always something fresh and exciting around the corner.  Like the best tall tales, this show transports the audience to a world at once familiar and exciting, and that sense of wonder will linger with you long after the story is done.

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